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Near Death Experiences – Beyond Belief?

Hieronymus Bosch via Wikipedia

A Near Death Experience (NDE) is a personal experience reported by those who have been revived after being clinically dead or, alternately, by those who have approached the point of death.

Religious and non-religious persons, alike, have reported NDEs.

Although specific details differ, a large number of reports from so-called developed nations could be summarized as follows:

• A person leaves the body and watches a medical team trying to revive them

• A glorious, warm light appears at the end of a tunnel as if a portal to another dimension has opened

• If the deceased person enters the portal, the light grows larger and they are suffused with a profound sense of belonging and love

• Others report being greeted by departed friends, loved ones or spiritual beings

• Individuals are often told (or sense) they must return to their bodies to do more work on Earth

• Individuals often do not want to return to their bodies but some kind of force calls or directs them back. Others do wish to return for the sake of a loved one on Earth or to fulfill a duty or finish a project

Although NDEs exhibit cultural differences, there are core similarities:

Tribal people may report paddling in a canoe down a long dark river for three days towards the sun…rather than floating down a tunnel towards the light. The experience, whatever the cultural differences, usually have a deep and long lasting effect. It often leaves behind a legacy of profound spirituality and removes the fear of death.¹

Near Death Experience

Near Death Experience: dat’ via Flickr

Most people having undergone an NDE believe their out-of-body experience was real and not hallucinatory.

A growing body of psychiatrists and neurologists try to explain NDEs by arguing that the brain is oxygen deprived and the individual hallucinates to ease the potentially upsetting transition from life to nothingness.²

This materialistic trend seems to be increasing, which is hardly surprising given the scientific enthusiasm of our times—often involving scientism.

Many people have reported a NDE. The overwhelming majority report positive experiences, with only about 8% reporting negative, hellish encounters where a portal leads downward to an intolerable, horrific place of suffering.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung had an NDE. Jung said that dying was like “stepping out of a tight shoe.”³ After seeing the Earth from space and feeling deeply serene, Jung returned to his physical body.

As with many NDE reports, Jung found the regress to his body disquieting.

Scientific research has found a correlation between electrically stimulating specific brain centers and the experience of leaving the body and seeing it from a distance. This finding, however, neither proves nor refutes NDE reports. The issue might remain ambiguous for many years because arguably the best way to know about a NDE is to have one.

Photographic illustration of a near-death-expe...

Photographic illustration of a near-death-experience. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No matter how convincing NDEs are to NDEers, the intensely private character of the experience puts them at the fringe of contemporary science. And scientists seeming to have the answer become unscientific if they overextend themselves in the discussion of results.

Sort of a Catch 22 when talking about the afterlife.

I personally believe in NDEs. But I think we have to accept that paranormal phenomena like this come down to belief. As long as we’re embodied, that is.

¹ Danny Penman, “Near-death experiences are real and we have the proof, say scientists” Newsmonster.co.uk, August, 1 2007. (link has changed since last revision)

² I’ve seen some weak attempts to square this with Darwinian theory but personally remain unconvinced.

³ C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, revised, ed. Aniela Jaffé, trans. Richard and Clara Winston, New York: Vintage Books, 1961, pp. 289-298.

Related » Heaven, Hell

 The Cloverfield Paradox Lacks the Tension and Twists of Its Predecessors (gizmodo.co.uk)

 This Photo of Earth Reminds Us How Small We Are (livescience.com)

 Psychic School Wars – Episode 1 – Psychic School Wars (crunchyroll.com)

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The Numinous and Numinosity – Seeing The Light Beyond All Lights

I can’t remember when I first encountered the English term numinous; most likely while reading a Jungian work or something by Carl Jung himself.

Embed from Getty Images

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961),
the founder of analytical psychology, circa 1960.

The word derives from the Latin numen, usually translated as “the presence of a god or goddess” or the “will, manifestation or power of a deity.”

The most ancient example is in a text of Accius cited by Varro: “Alia hic sanctitudo est aliud nomen et numen Iouis” (“Here, the holiness of Jupiter is one thing, the name and power of Jupiter another).”¹

The English form is traceable to Nathaniel Ward, who in 1647 wrote:

The Will of a King is very numinous; it hath a kinde of vast universality in it.²

Rudolf Otto

Most religion writers cite the German Lutheran scholar Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) who used “numinous” to describe experiences of spiritual power.

For Otto, the numinous originates not from corporeality, as so many reductive psychologists would contend, but from beyond the person. As a personal experience, however, one perceives the numinous psychologically.

If this is difficult to imagine, consider the analogy of wind. Only an imbecile would say that the feeling of the wind is literally caused by the skin. No. Something contacts the skin, and is then interpreted by the body and brain. In a roughly similar way, the same could be said about numinosity, or spiritual presence. It touches us. We have a direct feeling but also conceptually interpret what’s going on, usually afterward.

Otto believes the numinous takes many forms, and is higher than the magical. Instead of homogenizing all spiritual experiences into a fake, politically correct sameness, Otto says the numinous has primitive, daemonic and dark aspects, as well as a noble, elevated and pure quality.

He calls the purest experience of the numen “The Holy.” Unlike the shady, dimmer aspects of the numinous, this highest aspect involves an experience marked by a feeling of “Awefulness,” “Overpoweringness,” “Energy” or “Urgency.”

Image -pxhere

However, Otto is perhaps not always consistent. Sometimes he appears to imply that the numinous is indistinguishable among all religions. At other times he reveals a Christian bias, suggesting that numinosity experienced through the Bible and by various Christian mystics is ultimate and incorrupt.

From today’s standards, Otto’s definition of numinosity could be critiqued as unsystematic. But his work is regarded as a milestone and continues to influence depth psychology and comparative religion.

After all, we can’t really expect pioneers to get everything perfect the first time around. That’s like asking someone who has just developed the rocket to do a perfect Mars landing. It just doesn’t work that way. Not in outside reality nor in the internal realm.

Carl Jung and R. D. Laing

Carl Jung adapted the word numinous to depict spiritual experiences involving a “peculiar alteration” of ego-based consciousness, commonly called altered states.

Religious teaching as well as the consensus gentium always and everywhere explain this experience as being due to a cause external to the individual. The numinosum is either a quality belonging to a visible object or the influence of an invisible presence that causes a peculiar alteration of consciousness.³

Jung devised an entire psychological theory to account for the numinous and other supernatural experiences, like synchronicity. (Rather than summarize Jung’s theory here, I’ll just link to the related concepts.)

Image – pxhere

For Jung, we experience numinosity when an archetype of the collective unconscious is activated. Depending on the psyche’s overall condition, one’s ego stability, and the actual archetypal source, numinosity may be psychologically healing, destructive or, in a third case scenario, transformationally destructive.

When transformationally destructive, numinosity contributes to a breakdown which, some like R. D. Laing say, could be a precursor to a breakthrough. The rocky road to wellness and increased wisdom is often called a “creative illness.” By and large, it’s a dynamic more appreciated by gurus, shamans and alternative healers. Not to say that all mainstream psychiatrists are out to lunch here. And psychiatrists may receive more acutely upset and downright dangerous clients than the average guru. But there’s arguably room for improvement on all sides.

Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade 

The American scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell says that numen finds parallel expression in the “Melanesian mana, Dakotan wakon, Ironquoian orenda and Algonquian manitu.” I like Campbell a lot but he tends to overgeneralize. Put simply, we can’t assume that different terms from various religious traditions denote identical spiritual presences and experiences. And quite often Campbell seems to be doing just that.

No wonder “The Force” in Star Wars is seen as a universal principle with just two aspects, the dark and light. Campbell was approached by George Lucas and had a hand in the development of the mythological and spiritual aspects of Star Wars. True, the hero cycle in Star Wars is effective. But the depiction of spirituality leans towards a reductive pantheism. Specifically, the idea of The Force ignores the cosmologies of several world religions where God is seen as wholly other but immanent. 

Along these lines, the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade says numinosity exhibits diverse intensities, qualities and effects. Not just one kind with two ethical forms, as with the noble and fallen Jedi Knights.4

Immanuel Kant via Wikipedia

Sigmund Freud and Immanuel Kant

Sigmund Freud touched on so many issues and has been hugely influential within psychology, the humanities and the arts. Not surprisingly, many seekers ignore his crude and backward looking approach to spirituality, but I think that’s a mistake.

Freud no doubt misunderstood the numinous by reducing it to early development. For Freud the numinous is nothing more than remembering a unified “oceanic bliss” that every fetus (apparently) feels within the mother’s womb.

Sadly, the founder of psychoanalysis was not a mystic or perhaps unwilling to accept mysticism on its own terms.

Yet I think it is fair to ask – in a Freudian way – if some alleged religious experience is just emotional fanaticism instead of true grace—think of Super Bowl, Stanley Cup or international football fans and how they resemble some religious fanatics. The jury is out on this one, and it’s a complicated question. But I think Freud’s insights into psychological complexes could come into play with pseudo, emotionally based and also with low grade, oppressive and controlling numinosities.

Before Otto, Jung, Campbell, Eliade and Freud, the philosopher Immanuel Kant spoke to a realm of the noumena. For Kant, noumena are objects and events independent of the senses. Kant claimed that we cannot know the character of a particular noumenon but he believed we may determine the sheer existence of noumena by virtue of the “intelligible order of things”—that is, by studying the observable world of phenomena.

Etymologically, the terms noumena and numinous are not directly related. This has lead most scholars to dismiss any possible semantic connections between them. But even if two words are not etymologically close, their connoted meanings are not necessarily devoid of relationship. (Some run-of-the-mill academics probably wouldn’t consider this).

Kant’s noumena could, indeed, be at the root of some forms of numinous experience, especially in mystical schools leaning toward naturalistic pantheism, such as Zen Buddhism and maybe Taoism.

But again, the idea of numinosity extends well beyond this rather basic possibility.

St. Teresa of Ávila and John Milton

Many mystics from diverse traditions talk about different levels and classes of numinous experience. And even within a single spiritual tradition, descriptions of the numinous vary dramatically in terms of quality and intensity.

Consider, for instance, an ordinary Catholic versus a full-fledged saint like St. Teresa of Ávila. The one feels a solid, holy presence while walking into a church, maybe chats with her or his buddies after Mass. The other experiences a plethora of absorbing visions, revealed warnings and numinous raptures that literally floors them.

In Paradise Lost John Milton depicts Satan’s dismay when he sees the dismal, hellish gloom he’s confined himself to after forfeiting the glorious light of heaven.5

Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,” Said then the lost archangel, “this the seat That we must change for Heaven, this mournful gloom For that celestial light?

Could this be a warning for some of us?

¹ Schilling, Robert. “Numen.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 10. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 6753-6754. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale.

² The simple cobler of Aggawam in America, cited in Oxford English Dictionary.

³ In Catholicism, devotional objects and images do not contain numinosity in themselves but rather aid in the reception of otherworldly graces. An important distinction that Jung glosses over here. See http://frithluton.com/articles/numinous/

4 See also Deidre Sklar, “Reprise: On Dance Ethnography.” Dance Research Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1 Summer, 2000: 70-77, p. 72.

While the experience alternately called presence, or unity, or numinosity may be the same across spiritual traditions, “ways of doing” are different. Presence comes in a multitude of flavors. “The virgin,” is different than “Buddha” or “God the Father.” Kneeling in prayer before the virgin is a different bodily experience than sitting cross-legged in meditation. Both the natures of the divinities and the ritual practices performed in their names are elaborated in distinct communities to do different work upon soma.

5 C. S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Ursula K. Le Guin and several others each have their own take on the numinous. See my highlights here http://lnr.li/sDdLz/

A sampling of material about numinosity at Earthpages.ca and Earthpages.org

 A Hundred Thousand Year Old Civilisation? (newdawnmagazine.com)

 This is what Happens when we Allow our Souls to Express Themselves. (elephantjournal.com)


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Origen – Early Christian thinker often associated with celibacy

Origen (allegedly) castrating himself before a nun – via Wikipedia

Origen (185-254) was a religious scholar, intellectual and ascetic born in Alexandria who tried to synthesize Greek philosophy and Christian belief.

He believed that all souls existed prior to birth, an idea condemned by the Church in the 6th century and rejected by St. Thomas Aquinas.

Origen may have proposed a type of reincarnation but his surviving texts are too fragmentary to be sure.

His orthodox contemporaries believed that he favored a form of universal salvation stipulating that all souls are ultimately admitted to heaven, even the Devil’s. But he, himself, denied that Satan would be saved.

A fierce ascetic, for many years the accepted story was that Origen castrated himself. But in light of recent scholarship and the dissemination of information through the internet, this claim seems dubious today.¹

Carl Jung and others wrote about Origen’s alleged castration. For Jung, Origen did the deed to get closer to his God. But I remember reading this and thinking that Jung was way off here. Most religious traditions demand celibacy for advanced mystics and contemplatives, not because sex is perceived as bad, per se, but because the proverbial seed is said to contain power that facilitates connection with the deity.²

Hence saint Paul said, to paraphrase:

If you can’t be like me (celibate), get married and have regular sex
1 Cor 7 ³

“Universal Man”, an illumination from a 13th-century copy of Hildegard von Bingen’s Liber Divinorum Operum (“Book of Divine Works”, c. 1165) via Wikipedia

Arrested in 250 CE under the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Decius, Origen suffered prolonged torture before dying two years later from his ordeal.

Once deemed an important Church Father, he is still regarded as an important theologian. His ideas continue to influence philosophers and Protestant theologians.

¹ For more on this and universal salvation, see my highlights at LINER.

² I don’t know about the physiology of women and how female celibacy relates to spirituality. Spirituality is variously defined, so this is a complicated topic, any way you look at it. See for instance, Elizabeth Abbot, A History of Celibacy. For Abbot, celibacy combined with spirituality seems to mean she gets more out of her creative life from abstaining. But for deep contemplatives, the meaning seems more esoteric, having to do with the value of contemplative intercession.

³ Like so much in the Bible, this seems a rather general statement. As if all human sexual needs can be boiled down to two types! In reality, I think we see a continuum of needs, often changing over time as individuals not only age but also evolve.

Related » Anathema, Church Fathers, Excommunication, Universalism


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Freud, Objects and People – Why this elevator never reached the top floor

Freuds ( tipo andy warhol )

Freuds ( tipo andy warhol ) by Paulo Marquez via Flickr

For Sigmund Freud, the object is something a subject directs energy toward in an attempt to gratify instinctual desires.

Just how a person relates to the object depends on their psychological maturity.

In Freudian theory the object usually refers to another person, aspects of a person, or a full or partial symbolic representation of a person.

When an object refers to another complete person, replete with human rights and dignity, the object is called a whole object.

By calling other people “objects” it may seem that Freud’s theory objectifies people and is unduly self-absorbed. But that would be a flawed interpretation. Freud also says the psyche’s main job is to balance internal and external forces acting on it. In his own lingo, the ego mediates the often competing demands of the id (instincts) and the superego (internalized social norms and morals).

Freud does fall short, in my opinion, with his view of morality—or rather, the source of morality. Some people do seem to feel neurotic guilt and shame based on faulty upbringing or authoritarian social norms.

And this would fit with Freud’s thinking. But other, more genuine, feelings of contrition may arise from a sense of something higher, something truly spiritual which guides our understanding of morality.

Freud doesn’t put much stock in this kind of religious or spiritual thinking.

The founder of psychoanalysis was an atheist who generally mocked those experiencing – what they understood as – spiritual insights and graces.

One can’t help but wonder how many materialistic psychiatrists do the same sort of thing today, especially when it comes to personal spirituality, which has a rather sketchy status within contemporary psychiatry.¹

¹ In contrast to organized religion which psychiatry is compelled to accept, just as social and political pressures impelled it to accept gays and lesbians only after many years of stigmatization and harmful “treatments.”

Related » Cathexis, Fixation, Projection, Repression, Splitting, Stages of Psychosexual Development

References:

  • Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, p. 100.


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The Ontological Argument – Does the Greatest Imaginable Being Exist?

Romanelli -The Meeting of the Countess Matilda and Anselm of Canterbury in the Presence of Pope Urban II – Wikipedia

Ontology is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of being. Questions posed by ontology include what kind of entities exist and how they might relate or be hierarchically structured.

What we call the ontological argument sounds rather daunting. But it is just a theological position that tries to prove the existence of the greatest being of all, namely God.

Several ontological arguments can be found. The most famous was devised by St. Anselm of Canterbury.

St. Anselm describes God in his Proslogion II as “aliquid quo nihil majus cogitari possit” (that than which nothing greater can be conceived). For Anselm, such a being cannot merely live in the “imagination” or “understanding” but must fully exist.¹ Because the greatest conceivable being must exist in all of reality and not just in the mind, God is the greatest conceivable being which by necessity exists.

St. Thomas Aquinas rejected this argument on rational grounds, although Aquinas being a cornerstone of Catholic theology did believe in God.

English: Queen Christina of Sweden (left) and ...

Queen Christina of Sweden (left) and René Descartes (right). Detail from Pierre Louis Dumesnil. Museo nacional de Versailles – Wikipedia

For those unfamiliar with philosophy and theology, this happens quite often. One can believe in something but find shortcomings in a particular argument for its existence or truthfulness.²

The philosopher René Descartes forwarded an outlook similar to Anselm’s. Descartes begins with a method of doubt.³ After coming to the conclusion, “Je pense, donc je suis” (I think, therefore I am), his next question is: “how do I know that the outside world truly exists?”4

Thomas Leahey notes that Descartes was not the first to look at things this way.

St. Augustine [354–430 CE] had said, “If I am deceived, I exist,” and Parmenides [515-445 BCE] had said, “For it is the same thing to think and to be.”5

Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the "F...

Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the “Father of Modern Philosophy”, after Frans Hals c. 1648 -Wikipedia

Descartes’ answer to the question of whether or not the outside world exists involves God.

For Descartes, God exists by necessity. God must exist to be perfect. A perfect God also by necessity is good. And a good God would not deceive his creatures into believing in an outside world if such a thing did not exist.

But not only that. Descartes believed that his reasoning about the existence of a good God necessarily originated from beyond himself, like some kind of small revelation.6

¹ See http://mally.stanford.edu/cm/ontological-argument/barnes-translation.html

² For example, I believe in the efficacy of the Eucharist but do not agree that its benefits arise solely from the fact that the sacrament is a social gathering. For me, spiritual elements must be included in an explanation.

³ Some see this as a sham, saying Descartes believed all along. A similar critique arises with Plato who, some contend, pretends through Socrates to start asking questions from scratch when really he is guiding his argument toward foregone conclusions—that is, the doctrine of the Forms.

4 This is similar to solipsism.

5 Link broken since last revision. 😦

6 Leibniz challenged Descartes on his views about God. See https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ontological-arguments/

 


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Obsessive Compulsion – Time for a Meeting of Psychology and Religion?

Feeding an obsession

Feeding an obsession by Hirni Pathak via Flickr

Psychology

In psychoanalysis, obsession is a neurosis where one dwells on an issue, situation or another person to an extent that could be unhealthy and potentially destructive. In mainstream psychology, obsessive thoughts are usually regarded as irrational.

At best, obsessive people are a pain in the neck. But it can be far worse than that.

Obsession should not be confused with compulsion, the latter involving behavior. However, obsessive thinking is often accompanied with compulsive behavior—for example, a lonely, jealous and hateful internet stalker.

Psychologists see obsessive thought and compulsive behavior as flawed mechanisms where a person tries to avoid unconscious feelings of pain, guilt or inadequacy.

Contemporary psychology calls this unhealthy merging of thought, feeling and behavior Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

A classic literary example of obsessive-compulsive behavior is found in Shakespeare’s character Lady Macbeth, whose repeated hand washing bespeaks a crime and her related feelings of guilt and defilement.

Magnificent Obsession (1954 film)

Magnificent Obsession (1954 film) via Wikipedia

Theology

In Catholic theology, obsession refers to a person unduly influenced or harassed by evil spiritual powers or beings. This differs from possession, the belief that a person loses control over the body – but not the soul – as the devil seems to control them.¹

Psychological and theological perspectives on obsession could be combined to mutual advantage.

For instance, unresolved psychological complexes could be weak spots in a person’s psychological armor (usually called “sense of self” or “boundaries”), allowing demonic influences to actually cause or exacerbate conditions and behaviors which manifest as obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Put simply, evil might like to prey on psychological vulnerabilities. And I think it probably does. Or, rather, tries to.

¹ I say “seems to control” not to bracket the truth claim from a secular point of view but rather, to emphasize that Catholic theology believes the devil can never really control another person. These are two very different ideas.

Related » Mental Illness, Occam’s Razor, Shaman, Shamanism, Spiritual Attack, Tramp Souls, Undoing

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 The Glenholme School Observes Mental Health Awareness Month (prweb.com)

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 Is Video Game Addiction Unscientific Bullshit? (gizmodo.co.uk)


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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