On the Psychology of Confiteor

Carthusian Rite Confiteor

Why the Confiteor is one of the most beautiful and important parts of the Mass

The section of the Roman Catholic Mass called the Penitential Rite is insufficiently appreciated. This part contains, among other things, the prayer known as the Confiteor. Its name comes from the first line, which, in Latin, is Confiteor Deo omnipotente…, in English translated as “I confess to Almighty God….” The Confiteor is the source of the phrase, mea culpa (mea culpa, mea culpa, me maxima culpa — i.e., one confesses that one has sinned “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”

A special virtue of this section of the Liturgy is that it is an opportunity for members of the Church to pray for one another. When I was younger, I understood the Confiteor, along with the Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison (Lord have mercy! Christ have mercy!) which comes later, as being mainly concerned with seeking forgiveness for ones own sins. But with age comes a growth in instinctive concern for others; you look around and see what difficulties and burdens others bear, and, if you have a heart, you naturally want them to be helped. As this charitable concern develops, the Mass takes on new meaning and importance.

Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. (John 20:23)

Just think of what the verse above implies. Look at the suffering and the burdens others bear — whether those be their sins, or the consequences of those sins, or the guilt and shame their sins produce. And then consider the possibility that you may be an agent in removing those burdens and effecting their healing. Have you never noticed how real benefits may come to others as the result of your prayers? What if no-one else on the entire the planet is praying for these individuals? That may easily be the case! Can you not bring yourself — indeed, can you not resist the compassionate urge — to pray for them?

To give a personal example, suppose I’m at Mass and I see people in the congregation with serious obesity problems; these days, I’m afraid, that’s an all too common experience. Now God has given me the gift of physical fitness and a strong personal motivation to exercise. This is a grace not everyone has. It is a blessing, and I’m extremely grateful for it. But I have been overweight before, and therefore know that these people suffer very much because of obesity. It’s perfectly natural, then, for me to pray for them.

Now it might be objected, “Aren’t you being judgmental here? On what basis are you apparently equating their health issues with sin?” The answer is that I’m taking a very broad view of sin; it might be better to call the issue here moral imperfection, or even an insufficiency of moral strength. We need to strip ‘sin’ of its judgmental connotations in any case. The original Greek word for sin is hamartia, which means ‘missing the mark.’ It’s appropriate, then, to see the alleviation of obesity, depression, substance abuse, or many other things people suffer from as subjects of prayer in the Penitential Rite.

It is of some interest to note changes in the liturgy apropos of this. Before the reforms of the 1960’s and 70’s, the Mass was, of course, still said in Latin. People may not remember this detail, but in the traditional Tridentine Mass the Confiteor was actually prayed twice. First the priest recited it to the assistant(s) or altar servers, confessing his sinfulness and pleading for the intercession of “Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul” and “all the Saints.” In conclusion he further asked, “you brethren, to pray to the Lord our God for me.”

In response, the assistant(s) — representing the entire congregation — prayed,

May Almighty God have mercy upon you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to life everlasting.

To which the priest said, “Amen.”

Then the assistant(s) recited the Confiteor, changing only the last phrase by asking “you Father, to pray to the Lord our God for me.” The priest then prayed the same response as the assistant(s) had to his Confiteor, to which the latter responded, “Amen.” Then the priest, making the sign of the cross, prayed:

May the Almighty and merciful God grant us pardon, absolution, and remission of our sins.

To which the server(s) replied, “Amen.”

This detail actually signifies something momentous: that the priest and congregation, symbolized by the assistant(s), are praying, interceding with God, for each other’s forgiveness.

The present form of the Roman Catholic Mass includes only one Confiteor, said jointly by the priest and congregation. In theory, nothing has changed spiritually: all are praying both for themselves and for each other. But the present liturgy leaves this more ambiguous. If not instructed in the matter, people may misunderstand, and think they are only praying for their own forgiveness.

At one level, it’s perfectly understandable and ordinary for people to be so intent on confessing their own sins and seeking forgiveness that the reciprocity of the Confiteor escapes attention. Yet Christians in this respect are called on to be more than ordinary. They are called to be priests, a priestly people (1 Peter 2:5–10; cf. Exodus 19:6); and one vital function of a priest is to intercede with God for the welfare of others.

Moreover, an exclusively self-oriented confessional attitude fails to recognize a fundamental principle of the psychology of forgiveness, a detail to which Scripture pointedly calls our attention: that forgiving others and being forgiven ourselves are so integrally related as to literally be two aspects of the same thing. Let us recall some relevant passages:

Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. (James 5:16)

For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6: 14–15)

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (Matthew 5:7)

Note that we are not just called to forgive those who have trespassed against us, but also those sins others commit that might not involve us at all.

Sometimes we might think that the connection between forgiving and forgiveness is merely a kind of reciprocal justice: if we forgive, then we’ve done a good deed, and our reward is to be forgiven in exactly the same degree. But the connection is actually much stronger. In a sense, our holding onto grudges, or even just a ‘stinginess’ in wishing forgiveness for anyone, automatically carries with it a burden of moral imperfection, if not outright sin. Said another way, the moment we earnestly pray for others’ forgiveness — not just those who have harmed us, but those who need forgiveness in any way and for any reason — we ourselves come into right relation to God and with ourselves. And whatever burdens we have imposed on ourselves by being out of right relation are removed.

This shouldn’t be taken to imply that an awareness of our own sinfulness isn’t terribly important. Quite the opposite: the more cognizant we are of our need for forgiveness, the more enthusiastic and willing we are to forgive others, as this is a small price to pay indeed. If we fully understood this principle, we would beg and thank God for the opportunity to forgive others!

Perhaps at this point some will expect me to suggest that we should restore the Tridentine Mass, but that is by no means my point. In fact, I think the liturgical changes have been, in the main, for the better. It seems sufficient for the Confiteor to be said once — provided that people are aware of all that’s going on. I believe it proper to say that the main focus of ones prayer here should be for others’ forgiveness. That is the object of our prayer. The action of our praying for others is itself implicitly the prayer for our own forgiveness — so that both needs are being met at the same time.

I do believe, however, that, with the present liturgy, special attention needs to be given to instruct people about the dual nature of the Penitential Rite. Further, some things I’ve read online seem to suggest that in certain diocese and/or at certain times, the Confiteor is omitted from masses. If so, then it seems to me very important that whatever is used in its place emphasize and encourage the dual aspect of praying for forgiveness.

I wrote at the outset that this is something momentous, but have yet to fully explain why. Consider this principle of each forgiving another — of striving to do this oneself, and of coming to regularly expect that others approach you in the same way — carried to its logical extreme. That is, imagine a society where this principle became conventional, usual, regular. In that case the whole orientation of the individual towards others and society in general would be transformed, and for the better. Inasmuch as the ability to heal by forgiving is natural, and human beings are naturally social and gregarious, then an ambient recognition of this principle would amount to a revolution in human consciousness, individual and social. We would achieve in practice what is yet only latent and dormant in our collective potential.  We would change as a species.

 

What is True Charity?

Originally posted on Satyagraha:

Charity

The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.

At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.

To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.

A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of…

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Thy Kingship Come – What Does Basileia in the Lord’s Prayer Mean?

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There is an important issue with the English language version of the Lord’s Prayer. Specifically, the phrase Thy Kingdom come might be more accurately given as “Thy Reign come.” Alternatively, Rule, Kingship, Dominion, or Sovereignty are arguably better translations of the Greek word here, which is Basileia (Βασιλεία).

There is a major difference between a Kingdom and Reign or Rule. The former is a thing, a place; the latter imply an action or process. What we are praying for, in particular, is that God will govern our will and soul; that we are morally purified, cleansed of egoism, so that God reigns. The word “Kingdom” has this psychological meaning only obliquely.

Actually I think both meanings are implied by Basileia, but “Kingdom” loses the important psychological sense.

A few minutes after writing the above, I found the following confirmation in note to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer:

“Basileia, the word for kingdom is the same as that for kingship in Greek. The argumentation from “Thy Kingdom come” to the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit can therefore not be adequately reproduced in English, as it depends on the double sense of the one Greek term.” (Graef, 1954, n68, p. 187)

St. Gregory of Nyssa’s association of the Kingdom with the Holy Spirit is based on a rare variant of Luke 11:2 he quotes which has “May Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us,” in place of Thy Kingdom come.

Reference

Graef, Hilda C. (translator). St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes. (Ancient Christian Writers, No. 18). New York: Paulist Press, 1954.

Platonism as Psychotherapy

Portrait of Plato. Luni marble. Roman copy after a Greek original of Silanion. Inv. No. MC 1377. Rome, Capitoline Museums, Museum Montemartini.

Question: I have heard that Platonism ought to be approached as a ‘therapy of the soul’, or literally as psychotherapy? Can you explain this?

Answer: Yes. A central premise of Plato’s writings is that human beings customarily operate at a ‘fallen’ level of mental functioning. Platonism aims to correct this problem.

To avoid getting too mired in the modern medical model, we could alternatively think of this fallen state not as a disease, but as immaturity. Seen this way, Platonism’s purpose is to assist human beings in developing their full, natural capacity as intellectual, moral, and spiritual beings.

Q: What are the characteristics of this ‘fallen’ state of mental functioning?

Anxiety and worry, negative thinking, distraction, unhappiness, to name a few. The list is almost endless. A simpler way of looking at things is by analogy to attention deficit disorder (ADD): our habitual condition of mind is, relative to our ideal or intended state, what ADD is relative to our habitual state. That is, many of the same cognitive abilities that are impaired in ADD are also impaired in our ordinary fallen state — to a lesser, but still to a very serious degree.

Another analogy is to intoxication.   If one can achieve the higher level of mental function Platonism aims for, one’s ordinary state of mind may seem as one of comparative drunkenness.

But rather than list the problems of our ordinary state, which are only too evident and familiar, it is better to examine the nature of the healed, ‘saved’, or ‘redeemed’ state.

Q: What are qualities of this healed or ‘saved’ mental condition?

In answering this question we are helped considerably by the writings of humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow noted that many people have, either through meditation or other spiritual practices, or else sometimes spontaneously in connection with love, nature, or art, certain heightened experiences. Sometimes these are very brief and intense (peak experiences), and sometimes less intense but of longer duration (plateau experiences). For details, interested readers may consult Maslow’s works (especially Maslow, 1968; 1971). It suffices here to note that peak and plateau experiences are associated with increased sensory and mental clarity, aesthetic appreciation, bliss, insight, and absence of disturbing thoughts or emotions. Maslow summarized this condition by calling it one of Being, as contrasted with our usual condition of becoming. [Note: Few people realize that these terms are explicit references to Platonism, the source of the Being–becoming distinction.]

While peak and plateau experiences are of limited duration, Maslow also noted that over time a person may become more adept at bringing them about. As they become a more common feature in one’s life a general positive transformation of personality may occur.

Maslow, however, operating in the scientific-positivistic climate of the 1950’s and 1960’s, did not sufficiently emphasize the moral or spiritual aspects of the Being state.

Q: Can you elaborate on the moral aspects?

Yes, and this is very important. There is an unfortunate tendency today to confuse morality with moralism. The latter is a rigid frame of mind which seeks to conform all behavior to fixed rules, largely proscriptive (“thou shalt not…”). This legalistic approach does little to develop ones innate moral sense. Rather, it is often yet another manifestation of the fallen condition of the mind.

Morality is something different, something positive. It affirms that human beings are designed to be moral; and that moral actions and virtue come naturally and instinctively, and are essential to ones happiness, well-being, and integrity of personality.

Platonism sees an integral connection between intellectual and moral life. Moral development comes from intellectual or illuminative insights into ones own nature. Platonism seeks to cultivate the life of ones higher mind, the source of these intellectual and moral insights. This has two components, the purgative and the illuminative. The purgative part of Platonism seeks to correct our habitual forms of negative thought and emotions, which impair our ability to consult our higher mind. The illuminative part is concerned with actually accessing the higher mind.

Q: And the spiritual aspect?

The spiritual aspect of Platonism is what some writers call the unitive life. It is, of course, something understood by experience, not description. However certain leading principles of this state can be noted.

In general, we could describe this state as a form of humility, in which the ego no longer seeks to be ruler of ones psyche, but rather is content in the role of helper to something greater than itself. Now as to what this other entity is, opinions vary. The traditional view, of course, is that it is God. Some, however, such as Jungian psychologists, understand this other as a higher self or Self. To some extent this distinction doesn’t matter — provided that the ego has sufficient respect for this ‘other’ that it relates to it as something holy and sacred. The proper relationship of the ego to this entity, whatever it is, is one of piety and trust.

In this way a person is no longer constrained by the limitations of egoistic over-control, and the various forms of mischief the ego can create. One is more creative and spontaneous, and, in a word, more happy. Various names given to this condition are self-actualization, self-realization, and individuation.

Another way of seeing things is that Platonism is a form of yoga. Etymologically, the word yoga is related to the word yoke. It refers to establishing an ongoing connection or yoke between the ego and this higher ‘thing’ which is God or a higher Self. Note that the word religion has the same meaning of re-connection, as the stem ligio means to connect or bind, and is related to the word ligament.

So we see that, despite certain differences, Platonism, yoga, and traditional religion all aim to restore a kind of natural state or harmony of soul in which the ego finds its proper role. All of these traditions express a kind of instinctive knowledge human beings have that their ordinary state, where the ego is out of control, is unnatural, but can be corrected.

Q: What then is the relationship between Platonism and religion?

Platonism overlaps with that part of traditional religion concerned with Wisdom. Wisdom is an important part of religion, but it is not the only part.

Nevertheless, Platonism complements and may enhance ones experience as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. Many of the greatest Christian thinkers throughout the centuries were also Platonists — for example St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in the West, and St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus Confessor in the East. Traditionally, Greek philosophy has been called the handmaid of theology, and this is an apt description of Platonism.

Q: Is Platonism for everybody?

Each person is a unique individual, with their own preferred ‘yoga’. For some a yoga of the heart (e.g., charity and service) is best; for others a yoga of Wisdom such as Platonism is more suitable. In general Platonism will appeal most to people who already have a strong intellectual inclination. It is my observation that in modern times people are overall becoming more intellectual, so that Platonism may have broader appeal today than in earlier centuries.

Q: Very well. How does one go about learning Platonism?

First you should know that most of what is written about Platonism, especially in modern times, is of dubious value. Modern philosophers, generally speaking, no longer understand philosophy as a form of psychotherapy, but see it only as an arena for abstract speculation, controversy, and other forms of self-aggrandizement.

For this and other reasons, there is no substitute for reading Plato’s own works. This is made easier by the fact that Plato was great literary genius as well as a philosopher. Once you get accustomed to them, Plato’s dialogues are very easy and enjoyable to read.

I would recommend starting with one or two of Plato’s early dialogues, such as Charmides or Lysis. These make for pleasant reading and, while they are not his greatest works, help one get a ‘feel’ for Plato.

Eventually one will want to work up to his more significant works: Phaedrus, Symposium, Phaedo, and of course what is perhaps his greatest, The Republic.

After reading one or two of his dialogues, you might want to read some of the myths which Plato placed in several of his works. This may help give you an appreciation of Plato’s mystical and intuitive side, which complements the more analytical style found in his prose.

Not all translations of Plato’s works are of equal value. While some modern translations are excellent, others are not. I generally find older translations, especially those of Benjamin Jowett, and those the Loeb Classical Library, more than satisfactory. The Jowett translations, all in the public domain, can be readily be found online. Many of the Loeb editions are also in the public domain and can be found at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.

I have also provided several short descriptions of certain key terms found in Plato’s works which may assist you.

References

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. New York: Van Nostrand, 1968.

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971.

 

True Charity and Anamnesis

Charity

The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.

At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.

To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.

A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of the Form of a triangle. (This conceptual principle is a powerful and distinct asset to those who try to understand who or what God is – but that is a topic to take up another time.)

With this innovation, our definition becomes “Charity is the doing of good to others for the sake of the Good.”

How does this help? One way is with respect to the Platonic principle known as the unity of virtues. Because all virtues, and indeed all good things, are instances of the Good, a corollary is that pure virtue of any kind, i.e., pure Truth, pure Beauty, pure Justice, etc., must be compatible with every other pure virtue. One cannot, for example, act in a way that affirms Truth yet contradicts Justice or Beauty. This principle supplies a means by which we may test whether a given act is true Charity: the act must awaken in us an awareness of Goodness generally; contemplating or performing the proposed act should leave our mind ‘basking’ in the glow of the train of all divine virtues.

This has some very practical implications for modern social activism. It means that one cannot be motivated by Charity and yet act in a contentious way. Suppose a person is angry that poor people do not have adequate health care. This is certainly an important concern. But if this concern takes the form of hateful denunciation of other people – the greedy rich, selfish Republicans, whoever – then it is not a form of Charity. Because anger is not consistent, in fact it is incompatible, with the Virtues. This helps us see why St. Paul defined Charity as he did: Charity “charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.” (1 Corinthians 13 4–5)

The Platonic perspective also reveals four further attributes of Charity. First, it is it’s own reward. Plato had a name for that kind of experience where we suddenly we regain our ability to see truth: who we are, what really matters, what brings us happiness. He called it anamnesis, literally unforgetting (an = un, amnesis = forgetting). True Charity should have the quality of anamnesis: it realigns our mind such that we are again in touch with our true nature; we become properly oriented to ourselves, other people, Nature, and God.

Clearly this is much different from, say, sending money in a perfunctory way to a “charity” like Greenpeace. Sometimes such actions are performed out of a sense of mechanical duty. Other times they may be motivated by sentimentality – as when one feels sorrow at the plight of abused animals. There is nothing wrong with such actions. They are commendable, in fact, and may well constitute virtues in their own right; our only point here is Charity is something distinct and greater than these things, and to lose sight of the distinction is to risk losing sight of the full meaning and significance of Charity.

Second, the proposed definition shows how Charity is ultimately connected with our own salvation (understood in a broad, nondenominational, psychological sense). The truth is that, however much we may believe or protest otherwise, our ultimate instinctive concern is not with others, but for ourselves. Said another way, our first order of business is to help ourselves. History is full of examples of people who neglected their own moral development for the sake of busying themselves with other people’s problems. To such as these one might well say, “Physician, heal thyself,” or “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew16:26) We must be constantly aware, in whatever we think or do, or our own need of salvation in this broad sense. This is the meaning of humility. The moment we lose sight of our immense proclivity for error, much of which goes under the name of ‘egoism’, then our ego takes over and all manner of mischief is liable to occur. Unless God or the Good is in the picture, any action, even giving a million dollars to help others, will have a strong egoistic component.

Third, our Platonic perspective helps shows how Charity is contagious. If you act towards another with true Charity, the recipient knows, in their own soul, that your act is accompanied by your anamnesis. And since anamnesis always engenders feelings like trust, love, and hope, the person knows that you have gained a reward greater than any human being could give you.

This, in turn, produces a sympathetic anamnesis in the recipient. It reawakens in them a remembrance of what the important, the finer things in life are. And this is cause for them to affirm life and thank God – not so much for whatever charitable benefit they received, but because God made such a world where Charity itself exists. It may literally restore the other’s faith in humanity. Moreover, the recipient is presented with the fact that they too have the ability to show Charity to others. A quality of a truly Charitable act, then, is that it leaves the recipient in a frame of mind eager to show Charity to others. When you act with Charity to others, then, often more important than the physical gift to the other is the psychological gift.

Finally, the Platonic perspective helps us to see that Charity is different from other forms of helping, giving, sharing, etc., in terms of epistemology. True Charity, because it is consciously aligned with God and the Good, opens the mind to an influx of higher thoughts – the mode of knowledge Plato called noesis. This is distinct from our usual form of rationalistic thinking, called dianoia, or reasoning. Thus, a characteristic of true Charity is that it is frequently motivated by inspiration, often more an act of spontaneous creativity than cold calculation. Again, this is not to say that we should avoid applying our logical minds to helping others – only that Charity is something distinct from rationality alone.

 

Principles of Psychological Exegesis of the Bible

sacred reading

For a few years I’ve been working on a psychologically-based approach to biblical interpretation. It has both traditional and new elements. It draws heavily on the philosophical-allegorical method of biblical interpretation developed by the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC–c. 50 AD), and subsequently refined by later Christian writers like Origen, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, whence it became a staple (if little-known today) of Christian exegesis. It adds features drawn from modern personality theory and depth psychology. Readers leery of modern ‘psychologizing’ of religion may be relieved to know that it is orthodox in all respects.

I almost feel I should apologize for summarizing the method so briefly below – as though nothing useful could be so easily described. However inasmuch as I am a mathematician as well as a psychologist it is natural for me to try to reduce a theory to essential elements. In other words, please do not misjudge the usefulness of the approach from its condensed explanation. In the final analysis, the method is only as valuable as you yourself find it to be. The less I say, in fact, the better, so that you have greater opportunity to explore it for yourself.

The method can be understood as involving five principles, explained below.

1. Psychological salvation

The aim of the Bible is to promote our salvation, understood in an all-embracing sense that includes both spiritual and psychological aspects. These two aspects are inseparable, one necessary for the other. Our direct interest here, however, is psychological salvation. This is understood as an overall transformation that affects moral life, intellect, will, desire, emotion, social life, and orientation to the physical environment. It is epitomized by the statement, “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) The result of this transformation is attainment of a new psychological condition referred to in the Gospels as the Kingdom of Heaven.

(a) This condition is characterized by many features which the psychologist Abraham Maslow associated with Being perception and Being cognition and plateau experience. Sensory perceptions are clearer, more vivid, more beautiful, unified, sacred. The world may be experienced as transfigured. Experience and activity are ends in themselves, not means to ends (Being rather than Becoming);

(b) Inwardly the state is characterized by greater mental clarity (insight, serenity, recollection, peace, joy, happiness, creativity, inspiration) and by absence of negative emotions and thoughts (anxiety, cynicism, pessimism, anger, depression, etc.);

(c) In this condition a person may experience a union of the individual will and God’s will; egoism and those characteristic problems that attend it are reduced. One experiences a sense of flow, spontaneity, effortlessness, enjoyment, and delight.

(d) It corresponds to what various writers have termed unitive, transcendental, and integrated mental states. At a physiological level, it is potentially associated with better-than-usual integration of left- and right-brain activity.

(e) One does not so much attain this as an immediate and permanent psychological condition, as experience it temporarily with greater frequency and duration.

(f) This form of psychological salvation does not replace the concept of spiritual salvation, understood as attainment of eternal life in the traditional religious sense; but the former promotes and is possibly a stage in the attainment of the latter.

2. Scriptural consistency

All parts of the Bible aim to promote spiritual and psychological salvation. Each passage should be understood in relation to this greater purpose; one should not interpret a verse or passage out of context or without reference to this overarching meaning.

3. Psychological correspondence.

This is the key interpretative principle: that every character, situation, and event portrayed in Scripture has a counterpart in the psychic life of the individual.

(a) This principle dovetails with the large (but largely unappreciated) psychological literature concerning ego plurality (Rowan, 1993). This body of work sees human personality in terms of not a single ego, but many (dozens, perhaps hundreds) of part-egos or sub-personalities, each associated with a different interest, appetite, and social role.

(b) The principle of psychological correspondence is a routine feature in the modern interpretation of dreams (i.e. each character in a dream reflects some aspect of the dreamer’s personality or psyche).

(c) This principle is also found in modern psychological interpretation of myths and literature (e.g., the Odyssey).

(d) It is also the basis of Philo’s system of biblical interpretation (i.e., each character in the Bible corresponds to some mental ‘disposition’).

(e) This does not preclude there also being other levels of meaning in a verse or passage of Scripture, i.e., literal, historical, moral, etc.

4. Agreement with doctrine and tradition

The Christian Church was founded by Jesus Christ with the aim of promoting human salvation, and the Holy Spirit has guided the Church throughout its history. Psychological meanings ‘discovered’ in the Bible must be tested against sound Christian doctrine and tradition; what is at variance with these is likely an idiosyncratic interpretation, untrue.

5. Grace

To adequately understand the psychological meaning of Scripture requires inspiration and grace, and in order that these may be obtained, prayer.

Bibliography

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being. 2nd ed. Van Nostrand, 1968. (1st ed., Van Nostrand, 1962; 3rd ed., Foreword and Preface by Richard Lowry, Wiley, 1999).

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971 (republished: Arkana, 1993).

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. Routledge, 1990.

Rowan, John. Discover Your Subpersonalities: Our Inner World and the People in It. Routledge, 2013.

Uebersax, John S. On the Psychological Meaning of Psalm 1. 2008.

Uebersax, John S. The ‘Strange Woman’ of Proverbs. 2009.

Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. El Camino Real. 2012.

Uebersax, John S. Why do the Heathen Rage?: A Psychological Investigation of Psalm 2.’ (article in preparation).

First version: March 2014

Cannabis and Christianity

sistine cannabis

 “Everyone should eat hashish, but only once.” ~ Salvador Dali

Within the last week there appeared, following a NY Times op-ed by David Brooks, a flurry of activity in conservative and Catholic e-zines concerning whether marijuana should be illegal.

Some of this activity sought to relate the doctrinal views of St. Thomas Aquinas to the topic.  Most of this discussion began with the automatic assumption that marijuana is a vice and/or a sin.  One writer went further to suggest that cannabis is especially vicious, because it “hits at the very foundation of human life, our rationality.”

While as a psychologist I am naturally concerned about the very real and substantial problem of marijuana abuse, I am also concerned that we approach this whole subject in as objective and fully-informed a way as possible.

What the above-mentioned discussions seemed to lack was any recognition of the frequent reports that marijuana, under some conditions — i.e., in limited amounts, for the certain people, and with the right ‘set and setting’ — may potentially produce certain positive mental or emotional effects.

Here, then, is what I would offer as a more balanced and objective analysis of the subject:

1. Human beings generally are chronically afflicted with anxious, worried thoughts. Jesus makes a definitive statement about this in Matt. 6:25–34 (“Take no thought for the morrow…”).  Anxious and fearful thoughts crowd out the basic joy of living and prevent experiencing the world and life fully. This problem is arguably worse for modern people.

2. While rationality is part of our distinctive human nature and ‘telos’, anxious thoughts could be understood as a misuse of our rational abilities.

3. Although consuming MJ in excess may produce a dull and dopey state of mind, using a smaller quantity reportedly reduces anxious and worried thoughts – producing a state that is pleasantly relaxed, rather than ‘stoned’.  In this more relaxed state, people often report enhanced creativity, aesthetic perception, conviviality, joie de vivre, rediscovery of  the wonders of nature, etc.

There is an obvious analogy with alcohol.  One can drink five martinis and pass out, or a small glass of wine and become relaxed; and the  same is potentially true with cannabis.

If so, we cannot assert that MJ use is *intrinsically* disordered; more likely it falls into that large category of things which have some correct use, but which man often manages to abuse.  In any case we shouldn’t approach this subject with black-or-white thinking.

Incidentally, there is a reasonable line of speculation which holds that the ancient Egyptians included cannabis in the mix of substances they burned as sacred incense.  Moreover, certain references in the Old Testament may indicate that the Israelites who fled Egypt borrowed this practice.  So, who knows — maybe the correct use of cannabis is as a light, mind-cleansing incense, not something smoked by the pipeful.

Can we prove at this point that MJ, say in lower quantities, has positive cognitive effects?  Not conclusively.  But there is anecdotal evidence.  (We might have more and better empirical evidence if laws were relaxed to permit adequate research.)

Further, we do have some fairly good plausibility arguments that suggest how MJ might produce positive mental effects.  One comes from the work of British psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist.  In his book, The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist reviews a great deal of research that establishes (1) our left and right brain hemispheres have different functions; (2) the left brain hemisphere (for a right-handed person) is more associated with linear, discursive thinking, and the right brain hemisphere (again, for a right-hander) is associated with  more intuitive, instinctive, and holistic cognitive functions; and (3) there has been a clear trend over the last few millennia for the left-hemisphere functions to excessively dominate over the right-hemisphere functions – that is, our logical nature has hypertrophied, stifling other modes of cognitive experience and producing mental imbalance.

It has been suggested that one effect of cannabis may be to suppress excessive left hemisphere brain activity, thereby promoting a greater balance between brain hemispheres, and, as a result, improved mental and behavioral function.  As far as I know, this is only a hypothesis, with little, if any, solid empirical support.  (It does seem reliably established that MJ can increase enjoyment of food – and this might be considered supportive evidence; i.e., MJ may suppress anxious and worried thinking and enable a person to focus more on the actual sensations of eating and tasting food – and if that is true, potentially the effect applies in other sense modalities, like appreciating art or music.)  In any case this  seems like a reasonable hypothesis, and probably ought to be tested experimentally.

McGilchrist’s views dovetail with the theories of the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow (1968, 1971).  Maslow is known for describing a range of states of consciousness called peak experiences, plateau experiences, and Being-cognition.  These are transcendent states of cognitive function, of varying strength and duration, which happen to virtually all people at one time or another.  A Christian might perhaps understand these states of  heightened intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, and perhaps spiritual mental function”man fully alive” (which, as St. Irenaeus tells us, is God’s greatest glory).   While Maslow by no means emphasized the point, he did accept the possibility at least that some mind-altering substances might, under the right conditions, facilitate such cognitive states.  More importantly for the present discussion, Maslow postulated that it might be possible to train people to enter these states more-or-less at will.

This brings us to the quote attributed to Salvador Dali:  “Everyone should eat hashish, but only once.”  In theory, it may be possible, under optimal conditions, for someone to use cannabis to enter these Maslowean states of superior cognitive function, and then, having experienced such states, acquire the ability to produce them *without* drugs.

I should mention that active efforts are underway to understand and differentiate the numerous active ingredients of cannabis.  Many researchers believe it may be possible to isolate ingredients in cannabis (or breed special strains of the hemp plant), that produce positive mental effects without the ‘dopiness’.

But in any case, I would like to suggest that, at the present limited state of our scientific knowledge, we cannot simply dismiss cannabis use as only or necessarily a vice or sin.  We need to take a more nuanced  and unprejudiced approach in our thinking and discussion on the topic.

Further, even if MJ use is a vice, it is by no means obvious that our response to it should be prohibition.  Prohibition is a symptom of the nanny state which seeks to remove moral choice from the individual, under the assumption that a person is morally incapable of moderating his or her own behavior.

Recall the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32).  After living a life of profligacy, and prompted by nothing other than his own Conscience and God’s grace, the son eventually “came to himself'” and humbly returned home.  In the end all was well.  What would have happened had the state simply prohibited the son from taking his journey to the foreign land, and learning from direct experience the uselessness of “riotous living”?

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