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Pelegianism and authoritarian personalities

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle (Wikipedia)

Preamble: Why I’m not too enthusiastic about Christian theology  (skip to main entry, Pelegianism)

Reading over material for this update, I came to feel that Pelegianism is a great example of why I’m not overly enthused about the history of Christian theology and its related squabbles.

While converting to Catholicism in 2001 I asked the leader for our RCIA course, an elderly priest, how certain parts of the Bible came to be included in the Catholic canon.

I could have also asked the related question of how certain dogmas and teachings came into being but I’m pretty sure I only asked about the formation of the Catholic Bible, which differs from other Bibles.

In retrospect, the priest was probably caught off guard. He was a good, educated man who no doubt knew about the various Councils held in early Christianity.¹

Also, the RCIA participants met in the evening. The leader was probably tired after a long day of fulfilling his priestly duties. And maybe he felt he had to answer to the group, not just to me. But still, his answer seemed simplistic at the time.

He replied that certain Biblical books “resonated with the people” and others did not, as if a majority community democratically decided what should and should not be included in the Catholic canon.

This may be true on some level, but the final decisions were made by a select few. Even today, many of the clergy are quick to point out that the Church “is not a democracy.” For the most part, unchanging truths are apparently revealed through some ambiguous process I still don’t fully understand.

Does anybody?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not disagreeing with the Church’s basic teachings. But many elaborations, it seems, are questionable and supported through incredibly weak arguments.

A high school student could pick apart some of the arguments upheld by members of the clergy—especially, imo, those concerning why only men may become ordained priests.

But I digress. I’ll pick up on these ideas in the postscript.

A17th century Calvinist print depicting Pelagi...

A 17th century Calvinist print depicting Pelagius. The caption says “Accurst Pelagius, with what false pretence Durst thou excuse man’s foul concupiscence, Or cry down Sin Originall, or that The love of God did man predestinate.” – Wikipedia

Pelegianism

Pelegius was a British monk (circa 354–420 or 440 CE)  who came to be associated with a body of teachings called Pelagianism. Pelagius, himself, came to deny those teachings that had been linked to him.

So what is Pelagianism?

Pelagianism is the heretical Christian view, loosely associated with Pelagius, that salvation is attainable through one’s own efforts, as opposed to redemption through divine assistance.

Pelagius believed that Adam and Eve’s original sin (as related in the Biblical book of Genesis) was a bad example for the rest of us. But Adam and Eve’s sin did not indelibly stamp sin into every human being born after him.

In other words, Pelagius recast the traditional idea of a universal “original sin” into a more specific “first sin” of Eve.

So sin is something we can avoid by making good ethical choices and following up with good ethical actions. This places full responsibility on the individual, and less emphasis on the need for divine aid. God already gave us the “tools” as it were, to avoid sin by giving us free will. So grace, intercession, intervention, and so on, may occur but are not necessary to avoid sin and to make good ethical choices.²

Jesus sets a good example and offers a means for atonement. But for Pelegians, Christ does not die for the original sin that we, so the traditional teaching goes, inherit from Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God.

Pelegius also rejected infant baptism, a topic often raised by non-Catholics in favor of adult baptism. And he saw the popular Catholic idea of “weakness” as a crutch for not trying hard enough to eradicate bad behavior.

Pelagius was disturbed by the immorality he encountered in Rome and saw Christians using human frailty as an excuse for their failure to live a Christian life.3

In the early 5th century St. Augustine condemned Pelagius’ ideas. Pelagius was accused of heresy and acquitted.

But this was only a reprieve. Pelagius was later charged again in 431 CE, condemned as a heretic and excommunicated. Not necessarily executed, he was banished from Jerusalem to Egypt where he disappears from history.

Pelagius’ ideas have returned, however, in literature and film.4 And although most of his writings are lost, the thrust of his arguments remain intact by the writings of his opponents (most likely biased to make Pelagius look as wicked as possible).5

Pelagius, flanked by two ministers of his chur...

Pelagius, flanked by two ministers of his church, from a miniature of the Liber testamentorum. (Wikipedia)

Postscript: Why I dodge dogmatic obsessives (see also, Preamble)

Why don’t I like studying the history of Christian theology, as mentioned in the preamble?

For one, it seems too abstract. Theological writings also can come off arrogant and mean-spirited. Instead of reading about the ideas a group of men have developed – and the victims they historically were willing to persecute to advance those ideas – I much prefer good, honest histories about political intrigue and battles. Something I can sink my teeth into and possibly relate to contemporary news.

My kind of history may relate to religion and theology but it involves the whole picture. Not just religion. Theology by itself sometimes seems like a conceptual game.6

Maybe that’s a little extreme. I can understand why a given Church wants to get it right. But I think the humility factor must take precedence, not the arrogance or authoritarian factors. And it seems that many who boldly proclaim as correct their view of theology are probably authoritarian personalities hiding behind a plethora of unresolved psychological issues. Can they avoid dealing with their psychological issues by focusing on their apparent “certainty” on every issue under the sun?

I wouldn’t call obsessive dogmatics “losers” because everyone has a role to play in the grand scheme of things. And we’re all imperfect people, after all. But I wouldn’t spend time having a coffee with them, either. Personalities like that can be toxic. And as a spiritually sensitive person, they can make me squirm, maybe even give me a headache.

So I keep a respectful distance. Fortunately, people so different from myself tend to not want to associate with me either. So it usually works out. There are always a few needy or disturbed exceptions. People who just do not take a broad hint. They tend to be more difficult. But again, one can’t waste time with them.

There’s too much love in the world to spend time with regimented haters. We can pray for them. But getting too close only fans the flames of their authoritarian anger.

¹ In fairness, if someone asked me out of the blue, I’d probably refer them to Wikipedia or the online Catholic Encyclopedia.

² I’m not sure if I agree with this. I tend to think that God educates us as to why we are sinning. That is, what we once thought was AOK becomes clearly sinful from the higher perspective of grace. So we can’t necessarily choose correctly from the get-go. We have to be educated by God about making the right choice. To make things more complicated, this probably varies from person to person. God’s expectations may be sometimes be personal and not always universal. That’s why we should really only judge ourselves and not others.

³ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pelagius

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pelagius#Pelagius_in_literature_and_film

5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pelagius#Writings

Some histories of Christianity, of course, do include political elements and all the Church’s warts. But others gloss over the scheming and iniquity. See, respectively, Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (gritty) vs. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (glossy).

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 Attack On Ndigbo In the North Is An Attack On All Christians, Say Arewa Christians (sundiatapost.com)

 How to save Iraqi Christians (foxnews.com)

 Take me higher! Psychedelic church of cannabis opens in the USA, in pictures (telegraph.co.uk)

 The Queen’s former chaplain threatens Church of England split over LGBT reforms (pinknews.co.uk)

 Four Rappers Traveled to Israel to Find a Culture ‘Dramatically Different’ From the Negative Narrative They’ve Heard (ijr.com)

 ‘Disloyal, outrageous and unacceptable’: The Vatican really doesn’t want Belgian Catholics to perform euthanasia (nationalpost.com)

 Richest royals: This is how much money Europe’s royal families get from their taxpayers (businessinsider.com)

 Worcester board clears way for demolition of historic church (bostonherald.com)

 Only Christians can own cottages at this idyllic Michigan resort (mlive.com)

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Particles – “I want to be a particle of your light”

A general view of ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) cavern and detector during a behind the scenes tour at CERN, the World’s Largest Particle Physics Laboratory on April 19, 2017 in Meyrin, Switzerland.

In physics a particle is defined as a tiny unit of matter. But what is matter?

Subatomic physics discoveries along with the development of semiotics (the study of signs) have thrown the entire notion of matter into question.

Erwin Schrödinger, an Austrian physicist, saw the particle as a standing wave, which is a relatively stable energy pattern. For others, particles are seen as wave packets of energy.

Particle physicists also hypothesize what the media has sensationalized as the “God Particle.”¹ If its existence is confirmed, the God Particle apparently would resolve some of the inconsistencies found in theoretical physics.

Time to step back and think intelligently, something that some scientists fail to do. My main beef with the claims of some researchers rests on the problem of subjectivity.

How may we confirm the independent existence of something when the longstanding debate about subjectivity (biased observation) vs. objectivity (unbiased observation) is unresolved, and might always be?

An example of simulated data modelled for the ...

An example of simulated data modelled for the CMS particle detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. Here, following a collision of two protons, a is produced which decays into two jets of hadrons and two electrons. The lines represent the possible paths of particles produced by the proton-proton collision in the detector while the energy these particles deposit is shown in blue. (Wikipedia)

Physicists play a high priced game and convince a good number of people that they’re getting at some basic truth when arguably they’re just fabricating a historically relative worldview.

As any sociologist worth his or her salt with note, scientists carry out experiments within a given framework that, consciously or unconsciously, not only advance knowledge but also reinforce and legitimize beliefs about (a) how best to proceed and (b) what our world is all about.

So alleged high-tech “confirmations” run the risk of becoming, at bottom, a biased way of saying that a particular truth game is the truth game.

But science is no abstract game. It’s a human enterprise that takes money to operate. The general public is easily enchanted by glimmering machines and Photoshopped lab results. And this popular enthusiasm probably makes it easier for scientists to get funded.²

Not that I’m a Luddite, dead against anything new. Physics, of course, can be theoretically useful and reap many practical rewards. Our limits as a species should not deter us from exploring and developing new ideas. However, we would be wise to remember that ideas like the God Particle are culturally relative stories and certainly not the whole story.

¹ Many scientists, themselves, see this as an irresponsible metaphor for the hypothesized Higgs Boson particle.

² I have no data on this but it seems like common sense. Science exists in society. If nobody in society is interested in something, chances are funding won’t happen. Enthusiasm can have a ripple effect throughout the whole system.

† Title quote from Bruce Cockburn, “Hills of Morning” from the True North album Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws. One of the things I like about Cockburn’s “peak period” lyrics is his intelligent mix of science and spirituality.

Related » Democritus, David Hume, Philipp Eduard Anton Lenard, Particle-Wave Duality, Thomas Young

 Lithuania joins CERN as associate member (cerncourier.com)

 Clash of the particle people (physicsworld.com)

 Physicists find new particle with a double dose of charm (bostonherald.com)

 CERN’s LHCb experiment announces observation of a new particle (watchers.news)

 Can World’s Largest Atom Smasher Solve the Universe’s Deepest Mysteries? (livescience.com)


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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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Religion – As diverse as peoples of the Earth?

What is religion? With so many different religions out there can we come up with a concise or, for that matter, comprehensive definition? It seems not.

In fact, there are many different definitions of religion in encyclopedias and other educational works. In the simplest sense, some writers focus on the afterlife component, others on the inspirational.

Here’s a brief (and by no means comprehensive) survey:

Religion has been defined as any belief or activity that moves the soul, activates, energizes or inspires. For example, Marxism, sciencescientism and athleticism have each been portrayed as religions. Some scholars argue that the TV show Star Trek is a religion, which adds science fiction to the list.

The Economist published an article suggesting that Google is like a religion.¹ Others maintain that religion must refer to ideas like God, gods, goddesses, spirit beings, transcendence, the miraculous, the numinous and the afterlife.

Follow the Star by Michael Clark via Flickr

follow the star by Michael Clark via Flickr

Meanwhile, some insist that religion refers to a group, not a mere individual. Western jurisprudence outlines that a religious group must exhibit some degree of organization and be legally registered for legitimacy.

Other scholars insist that religion needs scripture, rites, ritual obligations, representatives, leaders, as well as a path to transcendental – no just social – liberation or salvation.

William James, Max Weber, Rudolf Otto and several other classic religion scholars suggest, each in their own way, that religion differs from magic.² This distinction is complicated by the recent move toward being open to whatever one believes in, and seeing these diverse beliefs as “new religions.”³

Just today while driving home from Mass I happened to hear a radio talk show about the new face of religion. A representative from the United Church said:

Some believe in God, that’s great.
Some do not believe in God, that’s great.

For the person on the radio, the essence of religion was respect and kindness towards others. I have to admit, when he said not believing in God was great I quickly changed the station to some pop hits. This was more spiritual for me that listening to someone say that it was “great” to not believe in God.

My bias, admittedly. But hearing him say that felt like being dumped on. I briefly wondered if I was being narrow-minded and should switch back. But I was driving and didn’t want the voice on the radio to bring me down. So I stuck with the pop hits.

Cate Storymoon - Nothing short of everything will really do - via Flickr

Cate Storymoon – Nothing short of everything will really do – via Flickr

¹ Now a dead link, this was active for the previous update of this entry (2009/11/23) »  http://www.ipdemocracy.com/archives/001018google_as_religion.php . It seems any new thing, if it gets big enough, is described as a religion or, at least, discussed in the context of religion. Today, for instance, it’s about kids staring into their phones. But instead of being described as a religion, the Vatican actually warned in 2008 that this was bad for the soul! http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/3531418/Vatican-warns-mobile-phones-are-bad-for-the-soul.html I find this silly. New technologies should be integrated with spirituality, not demonized.

² Some argue that religion and science share a distinction from magic. See:

³ Articles about religion at Earthpages.org


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Rastafarianism – The “evil weed” becomes “incense for the flowers”

Shira Golding Evergreen - coffeeshop free adam vis Flickr

Shira Golding Evergreen – coffeeshop free adam via Flickr

Rastafarianism is a Jamaican religious movement. Some of its adherents see blacks as the chosen people and Haile Selassie (1891-1975), the former Emperor of Ethiopia, is believed to be God, Jesus Christ or a manifestation of God (Jah from the Hebrew YHWH). However, Selassie denies this claim, saying he never advocated his self-deification.

In a 1967 interview when a Canadian interviewer mentioned the Rastafari belief that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, he responded by saying: “I have heard of this idea. I also met certain Rastafarians. I told them clearly that I am a man, that I am mortal, and that I will be replaced by the oncoming generation, and that they should never make a mistake in assuming or pretending that a human being is emanated from a deity.”¹

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, during a ...

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, during a visit to Washington, October 1st, 1963 (Wikipedia)

Like most religions, aspects of the Bible are cherry picked to support particular beliefs, but unlike other Bible based religions, much of the Biblical text is said to have been corrupted by ‘Babylon’—that is, the dominant white establishment.²

Despite overwhelming evidence that smoking cannabis has harmful effects on the mouth, throat, lungs and brain, smoking up is not frowned on but taken as a spiritual act.

For Rastas, smoking cannabis, commonly referred to as herb, weed, kaya, sinsemilla (Spanish for “without seeds”), or ganja (from the Sanskrit word ganjika, used in ancient Nepal and India), is a spiritual act, often accompanied by Bible study; they consider it a sacrament that cleans the body and mind, heals the soul, exalts the consciousness, facilitates peacefulness, brings pleasure, and brings them closer to Jah. They often burn the herb when in need of insight from Jah.³

This practice is so widespread that it was made legal by the Jamaican government in 2015.4

It would be a huge mistake to suppose that all Rastas are down on white people. Softer forms of Rastafarianism respect every person as a potentially unique “flower within the Garden of Eden,” as international reggae star Peter Tosh once put it.

The great Bob Marley had a spiritual teacher, Mortimer Planno, who was a well-known drummer and elder in the Rasta movement. Many of Marley’s songs hit home, musically and emotionally, even if leaning toward a fundamentalist side of Biblical interpretation. Today Marley is mostly heard on web and college radio stations. But when I was a teen, he was a big deal among many different populations and ethnicities.

How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look? Ooh!
Some say it’s just a part of it:
We’ve got to fulfill the book.

Redemption Song

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rastafari_movement

² By way of contrast, Catholic approved bibles make amorphous claims that some of the Old Testament teachings, especially, are culturally biased. But at the same time the Catholic Church regularly proclaims that the bible is “Holy Scripture” and “The Word of God.” Confused?

³ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rastafari_movement

Canada’s PM, Justin Trudeau, seems to be heading in the same direction.