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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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Polyphonic chant (and a little polyphonic trivia for the digital age)

gregorian chant

K Leb – Old book of Gregorian Chant; some place in Aragón via Flickr

Polyphonic chant is a type of Christian devotional singing developed in the 10th century where two or more melodies or parts are sung together in a composition.

As with anything new, not everyone approved of polyphony.

Some believed that melodic complexity was the work of the devil, who tried to seduce believers through the sin of pride. Pope John XX II was dead against polyphony and in 1324 CE warned his flock not to fall into the satanic lure of musical innovation.

Pope Clement VI Cameo

Pope Clement VI Cameo via Wikipedia

However, such narrow-mindedness couldn’t stop the flow of musical evolution.

As different cultures and musical styles increasingly intermingled, more complex forms of polyphony emerged in the medieval and renaissance eras, like the motet, the rota, the canon, polyphonic masses and madrigals. Another Pope (Clement VI) actually championed polyphony. So not all the Popes were backward looking duds.

The 18th century saw further development of the fugue, which had roots in simpler, medieval compositions. A good, lighthearted example of a modern fugue is found in Glenn Gould‘s “So You Want To Write a Fugue?”¹

Today, the word polyphony takes on whole new meanings with electronic instruments.

Oberheim 4voice '"Used by 808 State, Depe...

Old analog synthesizer – Oberheim 4voice ‘”Used by 808 State, Depeche Mode, Styx, The Shamen and John Carpenter. Produced from ’75 to ’79. Killed by the Prophet-5.” via Wikipedia

Most hardware and software synthesizers allow users to select the number of notes or layers they want to work with. For example, one might set polyphony to 4, 8, 16 or 32. Generally speaking, the higher the polyphony, the more complex the sound. But increased polyphony puts more demand on a computer processor.

Composing a pop song with “phat bass” and lush synth sounds, for example, would probably require more PC power than an ordinary phone or tablet could provide. Great strides are being made to make bigger sounding virtual instruments work on mobile devices and everyday computers. It’s all about clever, efficient software coding to get the most bang out of lighter processors without any unwelcome stuttering, freezing or crashing. If only those owning high-end gaming computers and expensive sound cards could run commercial music software, not too many units would be sold.

Sylenth1, a popular virtual instrument that runs on a computer, with polyphony settings at top left – via https://www.lennardigital.com/sylenth1

Back in the early days of computing I thought all PCs ran at the same speed because information is carried by electricity, and electricity runs practically instantaneously. Ha ha. Not so. Like anything, electronic data transfer follows basic laws and principles much like water moving through plumbing.

A bit of a diversion here, but it serves to demonstrate that polyphony demands more energy than monophonic performances. Be it with human singers and musicians, or with artificial electronic instruments.²

¹ More about polyphonic music thru my LINER notes » http://lnr.li/v5yC3/

² I added “artificial” lest we forget that human beings are also electrical to some extent.

Related » Orpheus


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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

 Western philosophy is racist (aeon.co)


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Psychosis – Toward a humble, intelligent and ethically sound approach

Exorcising a boy possessed by a demon from Trè...

Exorcising a boy possessed by a demon from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 15th century – Wikipedia

Psychosis is usually described within psychology and psychiatry as a fundamental break with reality.

Current theories say this apparent break is caused by biological and environmental factors, resulting in a breakdown or disintegration of the personality where normal judgement is severely impaired or absent. The break can be non-violent or violent, temporary or permanent.

However, humanity has never reached absolute consensus on the topic of reality. And for anyone to suggest that they ‘know it all’ is misguided, grandiose and, in the case of some mental health workers, a naive political act.

Psychiatrists like R. D. Laing and Stanislav Grof emphasize not just the drawbacks but the transformational benefits that may arise after a so-called breakdown. Providing that a breakdown is properly treated, Laing goes as far to say we should think in terms of breakthrough instead of mere breakdown.

Breakdown is only the first stage in developing a greater sense of self, spirituality and wisdom.

As the old saying goes, we have to break an egg to make an omelette. Instead of trying to put a runny egg back into a broken shell, it is better to simply let the omelette cook. In other words, psychiatric treatments that try to resume former ways of being may help for a while. But hopefully a person moves on and learns how to make sense out of a dramatically different life experience and emergent worldview.

Laing’s position is worthy of consideration but most mental health workers point out that psychosis is no trivial matter and should not be glibly romanticized. People and those close to them suffer dearly. True, some individuals recover and flourish after a psychotic episode but others never really get better, even with positive family and social supports. They limp along on disability payments, looking forward to their evening pill that lessens their pain, fear or frightening hallucinations. Sadly, these pills also tend to dull the mind and, statistically speaking, have long term negative effects, to include early death.

A few anti-psychiatry writers at sites like Mad in America tend to overlook the possibility that some souls may never pass through their ordeal unscathed. Like ships dashed against the shoals in stormy weather, they sink or float shattered and aimless, never reaching the far shore of meaning and happiness.

Psychosis (video game)

Psychosis (video game) – Wikipedia

This is a tragedy for non-violent souls. But for those inclined to violence, it can be so much more than mere personal tragedy. And to overlook this is not just foolish. It’s socially irresponsible.

So who’s right? The critics or the psychiatrists?

The vast majority of people on both sides of this debate have good intentions and something to say. It is unfortunate that little positive dialog exists between the two groups because neither, in my opinion, fully understands the human psyche in relation to all of creation.

What’s at stake here is the definition of health and normalcy, and how that affects people’s lives.

If a person deviates too far from social conventions, there is a risk of being scapegoated by so-called normals. If left unchecked, this unfair dynamic can contribute to even greater unhappiness, discomfort and instability. So mental health becomes not just a personal issue but part of a greater social, political and economic dynamic.

I add the economic dimension because not being able to “work” as currently framed in the 21st century conversation is a huge stroke against individuals trying to break out of the psychiatric name-calling game. Arguably a kind of bullying, name-calling turns a blind eye to the fact that non-violent ‘crazy’ people rarely make money while violent, organized criminals often do.

Social organizations that brand themselves as “friends” of those with mental health labels may inadvertently reinforce the stigma with the implied message:

Accept your label… take your meds… you’re doing so much better.

To my mind this is like telling a person of color:

Accept that you are a  &%$#@!, take a menial, dead-end job, and be happy with your lot!¹

R.D. Laing, perusing in 1983 The Ashley Book o...

R.D. Laing, perusing in 1983 The Ashley Book of Knots in a humorous allusion to his own work, Knots – Wikipedia

Defining reality and normalcy is not just a philosophical riddle. Difficulties also arise in religion when discerning health and goodness from dysfunction and evil. For example, in the New Testament story some believe that Jesus Christ is insane or possessed by a demon:

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebub[a]! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons – Mark 3:20-22.

Christian believers see Jesus’ rebuking his accusers as a sign of his divine intelligence but some nonbelievers see Christ as an egomaniac:

So Jesus called them and spoke to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house. I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.” He said this because they were saying, “He has an evil spirit.” – Mark 3: 23-30.

The belief that madness is caused by evil, possession by a demon or by God withdrawing favor was common in the ancient world. In prehistory we have archaeological evidence, circa 5000 BC, of holes drilled in skulls, presumably to release evil spirits that tormented the insane or those perceived as such.²

Medieval book illustration of Christ Exorcisin...

Medieval book illustration of Christ Exorcising the Gerasenes demonic – Wikipedia

Today, many Christians of different denominations still believe that Satan wants to enslave victims in a psychological, social and spiritual hell. Not just in the next world, but now.

The Catholic clergy still perform exorcisms but also recommend psychiatry for mental discomfort. Adding to the ambiguity, the whole idea of spirituality varies from person to person.³

To further complicate things, many intelligent people believe that the idea of normality is a farce or illusion—a by-product of the most effective media spin.

The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.4

Not surprisingly, the relation between psychiatry and laws concerning individual rights and freedoms differ among countries and regions. In Russia we see a long history of political abuses involving psychiatry. That is, those who rub the Big Cheese the wrong way get locked up. But this isn’t just a Russian problem. Subtler kinds of psychiatry-based oppression and marginalization take place in North America and around the world.

So who can really say what’s normal and real? It almost seems like small or crafty minds try to fit everything into their own perspective. A perspective they are comfortable with.

But the fullness of life is rarely like that. Life changes and evolves. And it’s high time we realize this.

Related » Beatnik, Michel FoucaultMadness, Neurosis, Nietzsche

¹ Unlike some mainstream media outlets, I don’t wish to reinforce harmful words by indicating with a single letter. Please fill in the gap.

² This is a huge presumption. Our prehistoric ancestors might simply have thought the skull was too tight and were trying to relieve pressure, like letting air out of over-inflated tires. Point is, we cannot know.

³ See https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/is-spirituality-so-broadly-defined-that-testing-is-meaningless/

4 https://youtu.be/kybkiiAKMOY

For more historical info see my highlights at LINER (scroll down)

 ‘I feel like I’m going crazy:’ Migrants in Greece are attempting suicide and suffering from other mental health issues at alarming rates (businessinsider.com)

 Why We’ve Been Thinking About Madness All Wrong: A Conversation With David Dobbs (psmag.com)


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Peter, Paul and Women – Another look at the Early Church

Peter and Paul by El Greco via Wikipedia

Among Christians, St. Peter is often compared to St. Paul.

Peter is seen as the rule man. Paul, the innovator. Together, they are usually cited as the two most important early Christians after Jesus Christ, himself.

Women in Early Christianity

Feminists say the primacy of Peter and Paul is a male take on early Christianity. A male take in a male world—in New Testament times and, to some degree, now.

Women, in fact, performed essential work among the early Christians. Food preparation, laundry and other domestic chores were not accomplished through miracles. And there’s no New Testament record of manna falling from heaven. No, women usually took up these necessary duties.

Scholars also realize that women played key inspirational, pastoral and organizational roles within the early Church.¹

Who was Peter?

In the New Testament St. Peter was a 1st century fisherman living in the village of Capernaum. He went by the name of Simeon, Shimon or Simon bar Jonah.

This simple fisherman was chosen or, depending on your perspective, asked by Jesus Christ to follow him and ultimately to become one of the twelve Apostles.

Jesus … told Simon, “Row the boat out into the deep water and let your nets down to catch some fish.”

“Master,” Simon answered, “we have worked hard all night long and have not caught a thing. But if you tell me to, I will let the nets down.” They did it and caught so many fish that their nets began ripping apart. Then they signaled for their partners in the other boat to come and help them. The men came, and together they filled the two boats so full that they both began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw this happen, he knelt down in front of Jesus and said, “Lord, don’t come near me! I am a sinner.” Peter and everyone with him were completely surprised at all the fish they had caught. His partners James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were surprised too.

Jesus told Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you will bring in people instead of fish.” The men pulled their boats up on the shore. Then they left everything and went with Jesus.²

Peter and Paul Fresco Mary Evraida Church via Wikipedia

Simon was renamed Cephas. In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, Cephas means “rock.” In Greek, the language of the New Testament, Petros also translates to “rock.” Hence the modern term, petroglyphs.

Peter (from Petros) went on to do great things, but it wasn’t always a smooth ride. All four canonical gospels tell how Jesus accurately predicted Peter betraying him three times before the cock crowed.

After Christ’s resurrection, Peter is the first to enter the empty tomb but not to see the risen Christ. Women and an unknown “beloved disciple” had that honor.

Catholics

Always mentioned in the gospels as the first of the Twelve Apostles, Early Church tradition – not the Bible – says Peter was the founder of the Church in Rome, along with Paul. There he was the first bishop, wrote two epistles, and was martyred along with Paul.

For Roman Catholics, Peter is the first Pope. Catholics support their beliefs about Peter with two essential scriptural passages:

Feed my lambs… feed my lambs… feed my sheep. (John 21:15–17)

and

I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18–19)

However, “Pope” is something of a retroactive title. In his lifetime Peter was never called “Pope” or “Vicar of Christ.” But Catholics believe their tradition and scripture are equally valid. So if Catholic authorities can retroactively discern that a marriage never existed (annulment), they also believe they understand how God saw things before mankind came to that realization.

Catholic Tradition also maintains that Peter was crucified upside down on the same day Paul was beheaded, just outside of Rome.

St Peter’s Anglican Church via Wikipedia

Protestants

Not everyone agrees with the Catholic legitimization of the Papacy. Protestants tend see the office as an example of arrogant self-aggrandizement.

For Protestants, Peter did crucial missionary work in Rome and for the Eastern Orthodox Church, he holds a “primacy of honor.” But he is not Pope as understood by Catholics.

Neither Eastern Orthodox nor Protestant Christians formally recognize any Pope. Although Catholic-Protestant relations seem to be warming among some denominations. What motivates this is hard to say.

In popular culture St. Peter guards the “pearly gates” of heaven, allowing good souls to enter while rejecting evil doers. This allusion no doubt premised on Matthew 16:19.

Muslims

Shia Muslims draw a parallel between Peter and the “Ali” of Muhammad’s time. Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Ali was the fourth caliph (656-661 CE) and first Imam of the Shia (632-661 CE).³

Peter and Paul

The contrast between Peter and Paul often crops up in Catholic homilies. Paul’s Letter to the Romans breaks new ground by claiming that salvation through Christ is not just for a select few but for all—Gentiles, Jews and anyone who lives in Christ. For Paul, living by the spirit of the Mosaic law trumps outwardly following the letter of the law.

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. (Romans 7:6)

St. Peter’s Basilica via Wikipedia

So Paul is portrayed as the living, dynamic breath of God within humanity. Peter, on the other hand, represents Catholic Church rules, regulations and its hierarchical structure.

For me, both are important. It’s a kind of balancing act among trying to do God’s will, being respectful and yet tailoring my understanding and experience of the rules to my God-given individuality. Also, Catholic rules and regulations have morphed over the centuries. So one must keep an eye to the future and not get too fixated on current conventions.

I remember a long time ago when converting to the Catholic faith. Back then, a monsignor whom I respected once spoke in homily, “God gave us intelligence. We have to use it.”

¹ See http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-17/neglected-history-of-women-in-early-church.html Volunteer work by contemporary Catholic women seems largely unrecognized. I have never heard a word of thanks in homilies.

² https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+5%3A1-11&version=CEV 

³ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ali

Related » Bible, Gospel of Mark, Joachim of Fiore, Rome, Thiering (Barbara)

 Pagans demand return of church buildings ‘stolen’ 1,300 years ago (telegraph.co.uk)

 Christianity is Wild (leeduigon.com)


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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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Quiddity – What is?

Quiddity (Latin: quidditas = whatness) is a medieval scholastic term referring a thing’s essence (primary substance) in contrast to its observable form (secondary substance).

This kind of distinction goes back to Plato and plays an important role in understanding the Catholic Sacrament of the Eucharist, said to transform in essence but not in observable form.

Catholics and several other Christian churches believe that Holy Communion is not just a memorial but a sacrament in which one partakes of the living body and blood of Christ. Each Christian Church has subtle variations in trying to explain this mystery. For Catholics, by taking the transformed host one goes further into becoming a part of the mystical body of Christ.

For most Christian believers, partaking in the Eucharist is the opposite of natural eating. With the Eucharistic meal, the eater becomes part of the eaten, whereas in natural eating the reverse is true: the eaten becomes part of the eater.¹

Concerning the Catholic theological distinction between essence and form, essence is not to be taken as mere mattery/energy—that is, the fabric of the observable universe.  For Catholics, essence is a spiritual term that means something qualitatively different from matter/energy.

This important point is often misunderstood or entirely overlooked by New Age / Quantum Physics enthusiasts who recast the old myth of naturalistic pantheism into the latest scientific language, which arguably is just another myth.

David Hume

David Hume (Photo: Wikipedia)

Clearly, not everyone accepts the idea of primary substance. Non-believers tend to think of it as mumbo jumbo. And Catholics are sometimes called derogatory terms like “wafer biters.”

The philosopher David Hume and others who probably never felt the glory of the Eucharist argued that since primary substance cannot be perceived, it should not be assumed to exist.

However, many who do experience tangible effects from the Eucharist would likely see Hume’s perspective as limited, one coming from a mind constrained by worldliness, materialism and an over-reliance on conceptual reasoning.  As Wikipedia notes

The claim that substance cannot be perceived is neither clear nor obvious, and neither is the implication obvious.²

¹ Some New Age and Shamanistic believers might dispute this, saying that when we eat an animal we temporarily merge with its soul, which continues into an afterlife.

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Substance_theory

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