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Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Ancient innovation to overcome legalism

Rembrandt - St. Paul in Prison (Wikipedia)

Rembrandt – St. Paul in Prison (Wikipedia)

Paul’s Letter To The Romans is an important book of the Christian New Testament.

Most Catholic and Protestant scholars agree that it was written by the apostle Paul c. 56 CE., probably in the Greek city of Corinth.

Paul’s writings have a certain depth because he was not only traditionally ‘educated’ but also a former persecutor of Christians. His dramatic conversion while riding to Damascus gives him a unique credibility among contemporary believers.

In Letter To The Romans Paul writes to a specific community he is planning to visit. His message is clear. The Old Testament laws are holy but strict, legalistic adherence to them does not guarantee spiritual salvation.

Early Christians have metaphorically died to the old Jewish law and are reborn in the faith of Christ. With a pure heart set on Jesus, good thoughts and actions arise through God’s grace.

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.¹

For Catholics, this means one is not saved through faith alone. Believers also must do the right thing before God.

Paul arrested - Wikipedia

Paul arrested – Wikipedia

The difference between Paul’s vision and the early, Old Testament approach is that good works are “alive” and adaptive in contrast to just doing what we’re told through a given set of rules and regulations.²

Put another way, Christians ideally live well from the inside, responding appropriately to a variety of complicated life situations. They do not simply obey from the outside, responding in a fixed way for every circumstance.

Paul’s letter also breaks new ground by saying that salvation through Christ is not just for a select few but for all—Gentiles, Jews and anyone who lives in Christ.

Salvation also includes women, who, in ancient times were not always too visible. About one-third of Romans’ greetings are to women. This may not be 50% but it is a significant step considering the ancient world mostly ignored women as equals.

¹ Romans 7:6

² (a) Historically, rabbis have debated the meaning of the Law coming up with different interpretations. I’m not sure if any interpretations have approximated Paul’s message. If any Jewish scholars know, please comment! I’d be interested to hear. (b) For some, it is ironic that the Catholic Church has adopted so many rules and regulations while, at the same time, upholding Paul’s position that the letter of the law “kills” while the spirit “lives” – 2 Corinthians 3:6.


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Rishis – Holy persons or good singers with too much time on their hands?

A Hermit (Rishi), India, 11th century AD, pink_sandstone - Chazen Museum of Art

A Hermit (Rishi), India, 11th century AD, pink sandstone – Chazen Museum of Art

In Hinduism rishis are primal seers or sages mentioned in the Vedas.

The rishis belonged to an elite class of male and female holy persons said to have received the Vedas through revelation. They “heard” and then passed on the sacred Vedas in the form of hymns.

Through song and oral repetition the Vedas were transmitted to disciples for centuries until the verses were eventually written down.

For this reason pinpointing the age of the Vedas is problematic because (most likely) no one really knows when the Vedic revelations were received and orally composed.

Also, from a contemporary skeptics eye, no one really knows if the rishis just had good imaginations, were repeating cultural biases, or whether their songs came from God (or partly from God).

This may seem politically incorrect or indelicate to say, but it’s so common for people to level this kind of critique against Jewish and Christian scripture, it only seems fair and right that all sacred scripture should be met with the same kind of critical scrutiny.


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Reversal – Beyond the clever machine

300-2In psychoanalytic theory, reversal is a Freudian defense mechanism.

A broader idea than turning against the self, reversal takes place when the ego converts an instinctual impulse into behavior appearing as its opposite. The miser becomes a philanthropist, the pervert a prude, the hater a lover.¹

Remember that Freud bases most everything on the instincts of life (eros) and death (thanatos). So reversal involves aspects and combinations of both waking and dreaming life:

The expression reversal into the opposite refers to the transformation of an idea, a representation, a logical figure, a dream image, a symptom, an affect, or the like into its opposite.²

Freud’s entire model is predicated on the belief that the psyche behaves like a clever machine or, in more contemporary terms, an adaptable computer program. For Freud, a variety of internal attempts are made to reduce anxiety and increase overall functioning. Sometimes the “program” works well. Other times it gets buggy (neurosis) or caught in a downward spiral where the machine crashes (psychosis), requiring a reboot.

Reversal is just another example of the clever machine trying to make things optimal, given its paradoxical life/death nature.

My main critique of this view is that all of the regulating is done within the machine. Even dreams that play with, combine or synthesize different moments in space-time are seen as originating from within the neurological system (mainly brain processes).

Compare this view to most religious and mystical traditions and it seems to fall short. A recent example, given the time of year, is how the three wise men in the New Testament are told in a dream to not return to King Herod³ after they find the Christ child. So the three wise men go home another way (Matt 2:12).

Granted, this is a religious story and we have no way of publicly demonstrating its truth. But it does suggest possibilities: Dreams could come from God or otherworldly agents beyond the clever machine. The brain could simply be reading a story, just like a media player plays a video or a radio plays a station. Not many would say a video player actually directs a movie or the radio writes the tune.4

Being a materialist atheist, Freud would not have seriously considered this perspective. And  I think that this, despite his obvious genius, was his greatest shortcoming.

¹ We see this with some religious people who talk about love but underneath harbor hateful, violent thoughts that sometimes erupt into deadly action.

² See http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/reversal-opposite

³ Beforehand, Herod lies to the wise men, saying he wants to honor instead of kill Jesus.

Freud’s student Carl Jung mentions the latter analogy, well before the idea of “channeling” becomes mainstream.


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Revelation and revealed knowledge – Can we separate the wheat from the chaff?

Divine Revelation (album)

Divine Revelation (album) via Wikipedia

That was a revelation!

When we hear someone say this in daily life, we usually take it to mean that they are inspired, see an issue in a new light or learn something that deepens their understanding.

Revelation has become a secular term but the idea of ‘revealed knowledge’ is found in most spiritual traditions. In the religious sense, revelation has several different meanings.

One meaning points to knowledge disclosed or uncovered about God’s plan of Salvation or the Divine essence. This knowledge could influence the interpretation of observed events. And general revelation is differentiated from special revelation.

  • General revelation means that God’s existence and attributes can be partly understood through observation of God’s creation
  • Specific revelation points to the belief that individuals receive divine communications

In Catholicism revelation is a truth communicated to a person by God. Revealed knowledge initially bypasses but does not contradict the intellect and differs from inspiration. But after a revelation, a person may think about and be inspired by their otherworldly experience.

From a comparative study of mysticism it seems that revealed knowledge is usually misunderstood by mystics, themselves—at least, at the outset. Over time the true meaning may become more clear.

Mystics make mistakes because they tend to interpret revelation according to their limited, human perspectives. Again, revelations from God should eventually make more sense. But those not from God would eventually prove to be a sham, provided the persons assessing a revelation are mentally healthy.

This idea is linked to the notion of true and false prophets, as found in the New Testament:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them

That’s a lovely story and great for laying guilt trips on people if we don’t like what they’re doing or simply because we don’t like them in the first place! But in reality, it’s a bit problematic for us mere mortals.

Why?

Photo - Tim Evanson via Flickr

Photo – Tim Evanson via Flickr

Well, because some genuine prophets could appear ‘false’ if not enough time had passed to test a true revelation.² By the same token, some false prophets could be seen as ‘true’ by fanatics claiming that more time is needed to verify a false revelation.

One thing seems clear: This is not an easy area and many mistakes could be made by overly zealous, wish fulfilling individuals and groups. For those preferring to think for themselves, it’s sometimes hard to determine who’s misguided and who’s in tune with God.

¹ Matthew 15-20, New International Version, emphasis added.

² An example Christians often give here is http://biblehub.com/john/2-19.htm.


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Plato’s Republic – A far-reaching attempt to understand life and eternity

Allegory_of_the_Cave (Plato)

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (Wikipedia)

The Republic is a political, philosophical and literary work by the ancient Greek Plato. Written in dialog form around 380 BCE, it reads more like a play than a dry treatise on philosophy, maths, political theory or the arts.

Plato writes a fictional discussion among Athenians and foreigners. The outcome of these contrived debates advances Plato’s ideas, as presented by the literary character of Socrates,  Plato’s real-life teacher.

Questions like the nature of justice, virtue, truth and beauty are examined. Also, a contrast is set up between the world of becoming (our visible world) and the world of being (an eternal world that informs our visible world).

This dialectic permeates the entire discussion. Not unlike some of the ancient Chinese sages, Plato’s eye on eternity influences how he understands society, rulers, and the arts.

For Plato, the philosopher-king is the best kind of ruler. So the Republic does not advocate democracy (Greek: strength of the people), even though democracy is an ancient Greek invention, traceable to the 6th century BCE.

Today, many take the idea of democracy as a good in itself. We hardly stop to think if there might be a better way (except for tyrants, communists and non-democratic socialists). But it is conceivable that the majority isn’t always right or best.¹ And that’s how Plato saw it.

From the House of T. Siminius Stephanus, Pompeii

Plato’s Academy – Roman mosaic from Pompeii, 1st century BCE (Wikipedia)

Just as a doctor is specially trained to heal citizens, for Plato an enlightened ruler is uniquely endowed to govern subjects. But not everyone is able to recognize the best ruler. And for Plato the vast majority of citizens are ill-suited to the task of selecting one.

The Republic groups society into four classes of gold, silver, bronze and iron. Individuals (ideally) fulfill the duties that nature has allotted to their social class.

This is reminiscent of the Indian caste system, although Hinduism traditionally legitimizes social inequality through myth and spirituality, not so much through nature.

via Vimeo

via Vimeo

Christianity too speaks of different members of one spiritual body, each having his or her own role: Hands, feet, head, heart, etc.²

On a deeper level, The Republic also presents Plato’s popular ‘cave analogy.’ This illustrates his views about a link between worldly change and eternity. The cave analogy goes as follows:

Prisoners in a cave have been there since birth. Bound to a chair, they face a wall with a fire some distance behind them. Their captors come and go, always walking between the fire and the prisoners’ backs. So the captors and the stuff they transport are always seen by the prisoners as shadows on the cave wall. The prisoners cannot see anything else so assume the shadows are reality.

If a prisoner were dragged up the slope leading to the cave entrance, his or her eyes would be temporarily blinded by the sunlight. Once their eyes adjusted, however, the free prisoner would see a far greater reality than the world of shadows.

Supposing the prisoner were to reenter the cave, they again would be temporarily blinded, this time by a lack of light. When their eyes readjusted to the darkness, the shadows would reappear. But the prisoner now knows these are mere shadows and not reality, as he or she had previously believed. And he or she would probably feel sorry for those who did not know the difference

A Renaissance manuscript Latin translation of ...

A Renaissance manuscript Latin translation of The Republic (Wikipedia)

In this analogy, the shadows represent the ever-changing world of daily life. The world above the cave entrance represents an eternal, unchanging reality that Plato calls the realm of the Forms. For Plato, only the Forms are real because our mundane world is subject to change and lacks permanence.

Toward the end of The Republic, “The Myth of Er” outlines Plato’s belief in reincarnation and the immortality of the soul.

Many see The Republic as a landmark in literature, education, philosophy, politics and theology. Influential throughout Europe in the Middles Ages, it continues to inspire in the modern age.

For me, this was one of the first ‘mind-blowing’ books that I encountered in my youth. And even though I’ve moved beyond it in my own thinking, I will always respect Plato because he provided a model, however embryonic, to help make sense of my early spiritual experiences.4

¹ Consider how the vast majority of scientists – at least, those who have received funding – maintain that climate change is bad for the planet. But what if, say, an asteroid hits which causes a deep freeze, and that extra ½º of temperature saves humanity from extinction? Far-fetched, to be sure. But like Plato’s scenario, a hypothetical example where the majority would not be correct.

² Funny how this photo has a white hand on top. A little bit racist? The Christian notion of “one body” can also be used by sexists to suggest that women and men have definite, different roles.

³ This is my retelling, partly based on philosophy lectures given by Dr. Robert Carter at Trent University. See original text: http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/allegory.html

4 A sampling of some of the topics covered in this diverse work:

pl1

(studyplace.org)

Related » Archetype, Archetypal Image, Aristotle, AtlantisSri Aurobindo, Blessed Isles, Boethius, Church Fathers, Dionysius the Areopagite, Gorgias, Meno, Neoplatonism, Plotinus, Proclus, Socrates, Skepticism, Solon, Sophists, Timeus, Universalism


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The Renaissance – Some were punished, others outsmarted authoritarian powers

Renaissance fair near Pittsburgh

Renaissance fair near Pittsburgh (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A term that literally means “rebirth,” the Renaissance brought on a flowering of the arts, architecture, music, literature, philosophy, religion, science and scholarship.

Prefigured in the 12th century, what some call the High Middle Ages, most agree that the Renaissance began in Florence, Italy and spread through Europe from the 14th to 17th centuries. Several factors were involved in its genesis. One of the more prominent was a weakening of the Christian Church’s cultural and economic grip over the lives of men and women.¹

Geographers, astronomers, and map makers during the Renaissance and Baroque periods were very interested in observing and mapping the heavenly bodies and theorizing about their relationship to the Earth – Norman B. Leventhal Map Center via Flickr

Instead of Europeans following the dictates of authoritarian personalities and their organizational structures, beauty and truth were sought after in fresh new ways.

The clergy had lost its stranglehold on learning and aptitude in languages like Latin, Hebrew and Greek, making any person with means and ability free to study and ask new questions about society, history and Biblical scripture.

Some were severely punished for their new found freedoms. Authoritarians in power rarely enjoy challenges to their rigid mindsets and regimes. Other freethinkers distanced themselves or entirely renounced authoritarian beliefs and structures so as to minimize repercussions. And yet other shrewd figures like Erasmus Desiderius knew how to find balance and equilibrium among competing political forces.

It’s not for us to say whose approach was right or wrong. Each had their own way, just as today some are called to blend in while others stand out.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria d...

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice (1485-90) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


¹ This entry doesn’t really touch on sex-role stereotypes during the Renaissance. If you are in the know, feel free to add to it.

Related  » Fortuna, Medieval, Scholarship


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Freud’s Reality Principle (German: Realitätsprinzip) – Is that all there is?

Hanging man artwork, in Prague, Czech Republic, a work by David Cerny intended to depict Sigmund Freud.

In Sigmund Freud‘s personality theory, the reality principle is a learned psychological function that seeks to gratify instinctual desires (id) through adaptation to the external world.

The reality principle exists in a state of tension with the innate pleasure principle. The instinctual id always wants instant gratification. The rest of the psyche (ego, superego) limits and directs the id so that its incessant demands are appropriately expressed, both personally and socially.¹

That is Freud’s theory of normality. Sadly, however, we often we hear in the news instances – and lawsuits – where the id reigns supreme by eclipsing or habitually overshadowing the rest of the psyche. And if an imbalanced person happens to have power over others, say in the workplace, sometimes they can get away with abusive behavior and, perhaps, other crimes for quite some time before victims come forward.

I have great respect for Freud as a true pioneer in trying to systematize the psyche. However, my main critique of Freud’s view has to do with his understanding of external “reality.” For Freud, external reality is limited to the material and the social. Freud was openly hostile to religion and religious ideas. This hostility put him at odds with his star pupil, Carl Jung, whose analytical psychology also became a leading force, especially among writers, artists and depth psychologists interested in more than just sex, aggression, secular life (Freud’s eros) and death (thanatos).

¹ I took a memorable first-year humanities course at York University directed by a Freudian analyst, Dr. Don Carveth. Although soaking up the professor’s wise words as far back as the early 80s, I remember the general theory very well. Reading Kendra Cherry’s excellent summary also helped to flesh out this short entry » https://www.verywell.com/what-is-the-reality-principle-2795801, as did Charles Rycroft’s clear and concise » https://www.amazon.com/Critical-Dictionary-Psychoanalysis-Penguin-Reference/dp/0140513108