Archive for the ‘New Testament’ Category
Today my readings took me to St. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, and an interesting passage where he warns them against what he calls the great Rebel (2 Thess. 2:3) This is in a modern (Jerusalem Bible) translation. The King James Version renders the Greek expression (anthropos hamartia) as that man of sin. Usually I am wary of modern translations, but here one suspects that the international team of scholars who translated the Jerusalem Bible had good grounds for their more evocative choice of words.
In any case this reading serves as a welcome stimulus to address a topic I have too long delayed. I wish to call attention to the reality of this great Rebel as a psychological phenomenon , and as a major obstacle to human happiness.
Now as to whether Satan, in the traditional sense, exists or not does not concern me here. What is of concern is a satanic principle as it exists within the psyche of each individual. That I am convinced does exist. And it is this inner satanic principle which is, I believe, our most immediate concern, and perhaps ultimately our greatest adversary and obstacle to well-being.
What is the evidence for this? To begin with, I call attention to the psychological theories of Carl Jung. Jung’s theories are not always right, and much of what he wrote is either inconsistent with — or has been interpreted (perhaps wrongly) in ways that make it inconsistent with — Christianity. However, points of incorrectness or disagreement should never make us hesitate to accept whatever else is true and useful. And there is indeed much true and useful in Jung’s theories.
In this case, Jung’s theories make a very strong case that the Bible, as well as the sacred writings and myths of all cultures, (1) can be interpreted psychologically, and (2) that this can be done more or less along the same lines as one interprets dreams psychologically.
One proviso or explanation must be made immediately: to say that the Bible can be interpreted psychologically in no way denies that it has other levels of meaning. Most importantly, it does not deny that the New Testament is literally true. (Whether the Old Testament is literally true is, of course, another matter.) Thus, rather than detract from the grandeur of the Bible, this view actually enhances it: it allows that God, the Supreme Author, uses all modes of meaning which literature may carry — literal and symbolic — to communicate with our souls. But having stated this, I will not further defend the premise here, having done so elsewhere. In any case, many readers will be willing to accept this key premise prima facie.
A corollary of this premise is that each figure in the Bible has some counterpart, and thus serves as a symbol for some part or process of the individual psyche. Again, many, especially those already familiar with Jungian theory, will accept this without further explanation. It is a standard element of psychological interpretation of dreams, as well as of mythology, art and literature.
However, from the preceding, fairly unimpressive propositions, logic leads us necessarily to a momentous one: this means that the figure of Satan — or the great Rebel — must also correspond to something within the individual psyche.
If true, this is a huge concern. It means that, at virtually all times, in whatever we do or think, in whatever way we seek to improve ourselves on the road of virtue, or to love others, or to contribute to a better word, something within us opposes our efforts. Moreover this energy, force, or principle of opposition is extremely strong, crafty, utterly callous and unloving, devoid of virtue, and, in every way corresponds to the figure of Satan in the Bible!
Evidence of the reality of this adversarial principle can be found in ancient philosophy. I refer, in particular, to the writings of the Jewish Middle Platonist, Philo of Alexandria (c. 25 BC–c.50 AD). Philo is most famous for his complex and amazingly astute psychological interpretations of Genesis and Exodus. However in the process of his interpreting Scripture he contributed quite a bit of philosophical and psychological theory as well. In particular, Philo sees human nature as containing two opposed energies — one salvific and salutary, which he calls soteria (so-tay-ree’-ah; the Greek work for salvation), and the other, its antithesis: a destructive force, which he calls phthorá (fthor-ah’; Liddell-Scott; Strong G5356).
Even this much is quite valuable to know. Now we have a name for this opposing principle, our great enemy: phthorá. This is a great advance over not having a name, in which case we must simply experience the effects of this force. With a term, however, we have the ability to form a definite concept, to associate that concept with other concepts, and to think rationally and productively about it.
There would appear to be at least a vague connection between this negative principle and Freud’s concept of death wish, or thanatos. However, for reasons I won’t go into here, I think that phthorá is something more — and more problematic for us — than the Freudian death wish.
As would be expected for something of such vital and fundamental psychological importance, this principle is represented in the world’s mythologies. In Greek mythology, for example, it corresponds to the god Typhon, a many-headed serpent of inconceivable strength and virulence, who is also the god of storms (hence our word, typhoon.)
Each of us is concerned, both each day and moment to moment, with constructing a stable, integrated personality. This corresponds to the state of unity or harmony discussed in my previous article on the monomyth of fall and restoration. Phthorá is that force within us which actively seeks our fall, and, once we’ve fallen, prevents us from rising again to wholeness.
At a phenomenological level, this is experienced as disturbing thoughts which agitate our mind, and distract us from positive, creative, loving and productive cognition. In a very real sense, at least phenomenologically speaking, life is virtually the same as clear and whole awareness of our outer and inner experience. If we look at a meadow and our mind is tranquil, we see the beauty, the details —we are alive to it. The more our mind is agitated, the more our experience comes to approximate semi- and even un-consciousness — and, in that degree, we are only partly alive. In a state of complete mental agitation we could be said to be dead, in the sense that, if we are conscious at all of our surroundings or inner life, the mental impressions are devoid of vitality and vividness (i.e., of life)
I wish to do no more here than to expose this deadly foe by naming him (or her or it). Knowing phthorá exists alone will not stop it. But better to know your foe than to let it wreak havoc unobserved.
I would only add a few additional points:
- As already noted, this force is opposed by soterias, the principle of self-actualization, which is stronger. In Christianity, Jesus Christ corresponds to (among having other meanings and levels of reality), or perhaps is, soterias. This means that remedy for phthorá is to be found in the complex system of mythos, religion, psychology and philosophy that surrounds the figure of Jesus Christ.
- There is possibly some legitimate reason, biologically and/or psychologically, for the existence of phthorá. Perhaps goodness needs an adversary to stay in trim and so that we can grow in virtue. Nevertheless, in this case a little goes a long way: if we need the devil, keep it chained, well guarded, and hopefully with Jesus Christ standing on its head.
- Again, it is very important to recognize how this force operates within us. Otherwise (as Jung pointed out), there is a strong tendency for us to project our own satanic tendencies onto others. Our great enemy, adversary and antagonist is within. Whatever harm anyone else can do us is negligible in comparison with the ferocity and malice of this opponent.
- In keeping with everything said here, it follows that there is a serious danger our identifying with this principle, of becoming it. This, in fact, happens routinely. It occurs, for example, when we become so harshly condemning of others that we literally take the attitude of an avenging angel towards them. To take an example from today’s news, political conservatives may condemn progressives, angrily denouncing them and insisting they are great sinners, etc. But in doing this, in relinquishing the reign of love and goodness in their psyche, they become literally possessed by phthorá. And, of course, the exact same can be said of progressives who condemn, rather than try to engage or reason with conservatives. But this is only an example; a hundred others could serve equally well as illustrations.
The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation
(A summary appears following the article.)
We address here what can be termed the monomyth of fall and salvation. By monomyth we mean a core myth that is expressed in different forms by different cultures. By fall and salvation here we do not mean so much the ultimate eternal destiny of a soul, but a cycle which recurs frequently within ones life — perhaps even on a daily basis.
We borrow the term monomyth from the writings of the noted mythographer, Joseph Campbell. Campbell (1949) explored in detail a different, but related and somewhat overlapping monomyth, which we might call the heroic quest. The heroic myth somewhat neglects the question of why the hero needs to go on a quest to begin with; it’s as though the quest is the result of someone else’s difficulties or negligence. The fall and salvation monomyth, on the other hand, pays much more attention to moral failing of the protagonist as causing the need for redemption.
In any case, it is vital to understand that our approach here is psychological more than religious in the traditional sense. That is, the goal here is to examine this myth in a way that would be of interest to religious and nonreligious readers alike. We take it as axiomatic, that is, that if there is such a thing as spiritual salvation in the sense of obtaining a propitious afterlife or immortality of soul, that this is congruent and consistent with the nearer task of obtaining psychological and moral well-being in this life. In short, then, it is the loss and re-attainment of an authentic psychological well-being that is our present concern.
We wish to be exceptionally brief here — and therefore extremely efficient — for the following reasons. First the present is not so much a self-contained work as much as one intended to serve as a reference or appendix for future articles that will discuss moral fall and salvation from a psychological viewpoint. Second, because it is likely this concept has appeared multiple times in the previous literature; unfortunately, partly due to its interdisciplinary nature, it is not immediately evident what the major touchstones of this literature are (besides those which are cited herein.) As new relevant references are encountered, they will be added to the References below.
Our initial premise is that myths express and communicate certain psychological and existential themes. These themes are of vital importance to individual welfare and to the integrity of society, but they either cannot be clearly stated in explicit, rationalistic terms or there is some reason not to, and they are instead expressed in metaphorical or symbolic terms via myth. In some sense, myths constitute a cultural ‘manual of life.’
A corollary is that in the degree to which the existential concerns of all human beings are the same, then the myths of different times and cultures reflect these common concerns and are structurally similar. This is helpful because our situation is then analogous to having multiple roadmaps of some terrain. Just as no single map is fully complete, accurate, and decipherable, neither is any single myth. Additional maps enable us to fill in gaps in some other map. The same principle applies to myths.
Structure of the Monomyth
The basic features of the monomyth of fall and salvation can be characterized as follows:
- In their interior life, human beings characteristically go through a recurring cycle — which we can call an ethical cycle. By ‘ethical’ here we mean in the broad sense of that which pertains to happiness and choices in ones way of life. We do not mean the narrower sense of ethical as pertaining only to proper or normative social actions (e.g., business or professional ethics).
- At least initially we can define this cycle by four characteristic parts or landmarks. To begin we can imagine a person in a state of happiness. We will adopt provisionally and without much comment the widely accepted view of Abraham Maslow (1968, 1971) that the most significant moments of happiness correspond to certain peak (relatively short and intense) and plateau (somewhat more sustained, if less intense) experiences. Happiness here is not just emotional, but also implies feelings of fulfilment, satisfaction, and meaning, and enhanced cognitive function (including moral, intellectual, and aesthetic abilities). These states are the basis on which we could even imagine something like a paradise or Garden of Eden. Maslow and others have written extensively on characteristic features of these peak and plateau experiences. Of special interest to us here, however, are two features: (1) a sense of unity, such that one feels an absence of internal conflict, with all elements of oneself at peace, harmonized, and ‘pulling together’; and (2) feelings of reverence, piety, sacredness, humility, gratitude, and dependence on a higher power or something much greater than ones own ego. In the Christian tradition this is called the state of grace.
- These states, however, are impermanent. If we do attain such a ‘high’, the inevitable result is that we will eventually experience a fall or descent to a less happy and exalted condition. The fall may begin imperceptibly, but it typically progresses to such a point that we are not only aware of, but saddened by our lost paradise. Again, in Christianity this is sometimes called a fall from grace.
- When the awareness and sadness over our lost happiness become sufficiently acute, and when the various life problems associated with being in an unhappy and conflicted state accumulate, there comes the turning point. We could call this, following St. Paul, the metanoia, literally, the change of mind. After this point our principle concern is to regain the state of lost happiness. Whereas before we were in the phase of the fall, now we are in the movement of ascent.
- Within the Platonic and the Christian traditions, three very broad phases or aspects of this ascent are called the (1) purification, (2) illumination, and (3) unitive phases. We can accept these as at least provisionally plausible, provided we don’t insist that these always occur in the same order and without overlapping. It might be more accurate to call these three aspects rather than stages of ethical ascent. Principles of process symmetry suggest a possible corresponding three-fold movement in the descending phase: progressive impurity, darkening or loss of illumination, and disunity and conflict.
That something like does in fact characterize the human condition can be deduced from many modern personality theories, the evidence of traditional religion, literature and art, common language and figurative expressions, and individual experience.
Jungian Personality Theory
The monomyth of fall and salvation is very similar to a model of cyclical personality dynamics advanced the Jungian writer Edward Edinger in a series books (e.g., 1986a, 1992, 1994); many of his works explicitly address this model in the context of myths and religion.
For Edinger (who is basically following Jung here) this cycle involves the relationship of the ego to a much greater entity, the Self. The ego is our empirical self, our conscious identify. The Self in Jungian psychology includes our conscious mind, the unconscious, our body, our social life, our spiritual soul, and all facets of our being. In many respects, the Self in Jungian theory has features which are customarily ascribed to God. It is mysterious, sacred, numinous, and very powerful.
Edinger describes a characteristic cyclical process of personality dynamics in which the ego alternates between phases of being more united with, and separate from the Self. The process, which recurs throughout life, could better be described as “spiral” rather than circular per se, because it allows for cumulative overall personality development.
Figure 3. Gradual separation of the ego from the Self (adapted from Edinger, 1992, p. 5)
The unitive state (leftmost panel in Figure 3) in the Jung/Edinger framework is one in which the ego subordinates itself to, and maintains an attitude of humility towards the Self. The ego receives direction from the Self by intuitions, inspirations, and perhaps dreams, and is guided by them.
The fall occurs, according to this view, when the ego no longer looks to the Self for guidance and direction. As it relies more and more on itself, the ego may become a virtual tyrant or dictator, seeking its own narrow interests and following a distorted view of reality. (Edinger calls this state ‘ego inflation’. ) Once headed in this direction, the person inevitably experiences progressively more unhappiness, accompanied by more pronounced, ineffective attempts by the ego to salvage things. In the later stages, the personality is marked by symptoms of conflict, neurosis, anxiety and neurosis, etc. Eventually problems become sufficiently acute that the ego sees further progress along the same trajectory as impossible. A personality crisis ensues, which can be resolved only by the ego’s regaining a sense of proper humility (Edinger, 1986b). Thus chastised it must then begin the upward ascent.
We should, however, note peculiarities and potential biases of the Jungian framework, lest we too naively accept it in its entirety. Jung was much influenced by Nietzsche. To put the matter briefly, Jung (and Edinger) are Nietzschean in their reaction against the Apollonian elements of religious orthodoxy and classical philosophy, and in their overemphasizing the Dionysian elements of self-will and unrestrained personal freedom. As a result, it is hard to find much more than lip service paid by Jung or Edinger to any concept of virtue ethics. Instead they have a kind of neo-Gnostic orientation in which one is saved more by esoteric knowledge than by genuine moral reformation or renewal — or, for that matter, by any form of self-culture that requires work and discipline.
Nevertheless this example suffices to establish that there at least one plausible psychological basis for the fall/salvation monomyth, that it corresponds to something very basic and important in the human condition, and is something universal. We would therefore expect it to find expression in myths and religions across cultures.
Some examples will serve to illustrate the nature of the monomyth. We could look to virtually any culture or religion for suitable examples, but for brevity and convenience we will restrict attention to two here: the Bible, and ancient Greek myth, literature and philosophy.
In the Bible the monomyth is presented continually and at many levels: in the lives of individuals, in the history of the Jews, and relative to all humankind. Indeed the Bible as a whole is, as it were, an epic portrayal of the monomyth that extends from the fall of Adam and Eve and their banishment from the Garden of Eden to the restoration of the Tree of Life and a soul’s attainment of the New Jerusalem in the final book, Revelation. The monomyth is the essential message of the Bible: to live in union with God or with God’s will, once in the state not to fall, and if fallen, to regain it.
The clearest portrayal of the descending arc is of course the fall of Adam and Eve. The psychological significance of this story has long been known to religious writers. It was thoroughly explained even before the Christian era by the Jewish Platonist philosopher Philo of Alexandria (Uebersax, 2012), who influenced such major Christian exegetes as St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in the West, and St. Gregory of Nyssa in the West (just to name a few figures).
We find in the story of Adam and Eve not simply a turning away from God, but a complex psychological process which also involves a deliberate turn towards self-will, and a re-ordering of interests which mistakenly places sensual concerns above pursuit of higher, spiritual, moral, and intellectual goods and pleasures. The motif of the fall is recapitulated frequently throughout Genesis — for example in the stories of Cain, the flood, and the tower of Babel.
The exodus and wandering of the Jews as they are liberated from bondage to the Egyptians (symbolizing a mind dominated by passions), their wandering in the desert, and their eventual arrival in the Promised Land represents the upward arc of the monomyth.
As the Old Testament continues, the Jews or individual figures are continually falling (e.g., worship of idols, David’s adultery), and being called back to the upward journey by prophets.
Again, the motif of fall and salvation permeates the New Testament. There the central concept of the kingdom of heaven can, at the psychological level, be understood as basically corresponding to the state of grace. Virtually all of Jesus’ parables address the monomyth and its phases or aspects. A particularly good example of the complete monomyth, including fall and restoration, is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32).
Greek Mythology, Literature and Philosophy
Similarly, the monomyth is found throughout Greek myth and literature. Its falling arc is symbolized by the ‘Ages of Man’ in Hesiod’s Works and Days (106–201), which describes a progression of historical epochs from a past Golden Age, through increasingly less noble Silver, Bronze, and ‘heroic’ ages, to the present, fallen, Iron Age. Here we see the characteristic Greek motif in which humility, union with God, and direction by God’s will is associated with happiness and harmony, but man’s pride (hubris) leads to a fall, conflict, and suffering. It seems universally agreed that Hesiod borrowed or adapted this myth from earlier Middle Eastern, Indian, or perhaps Egyptian sources (see e.g., Woodard, 2009). Just before this section Hesiod supplies another fall myth — that of Prometheus, Epimetheus, and Pandora (42–105).
The Iliad and the Odyssey taken together comprise a complete monomyth. The events of the Iliad begin with the famous Judgment of Paris, which thematically parallels fall of Adam and Eve. At the instigation of Strife (who assumes the devil’s role), and under circumstances involving a garden and apples, Paris, prince of Troy, is asked to judge who is fairest: the voluptuous Aphrodite, the domestic Hera, or the brave and wise Athena. Being bribed Aphrodite by the promise of a romance with the beautiful Helen, Paris chooses Aphrodite as fairest. He thus wins Helen. But since Helen is already married to Menelaus, king of Sparta, this leads to war between the Greeks and Trojans. In short, the story’s theme is that when Paris (symbolizing us), choose pleasure over virtue, the result is a war — and in fact a long, terrible one.
The upward arc of the Homeric cycle is symbolized by the Odyssey. There the protagonist, Odysseus, after the Trojan War ends, must undergo many difficult trials before finally returning to his homeland, where he is reunited with his wife, father, and countrymen, and lives in peace.
Amongst the tragic poets — Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides — the peril of hubris is, of course, is a staple motif.
Virtually all of Plato’s dialogues might be construed as, in one way or another, concerned with the monomyth — especially the upward movement (anagogy) of the soul brought about through philosophy (love of Wisdom), and moral and mental renewal. This is particularly clear in the many myths Plato employs, especially in the Cave Allegory of the Republic and the Chariot Myth of Phaedrus.
Similarly the hierarchical metaphysical system of the Neoplatonist, Plotinus, with its emphasis on the reciprocal movements of emanation and return, could be understood as a metaphor for the ethical/psychological monomyth (Fleet, 2112; Hadot, 1998, 2002).
Summary and Conclusions
The purpose of this article could be understood as to survey the vast and complex array of data which constitute the great myths of humanity, and to bring into focus one part: the portrayal of a core psychological dynamic which we may at least provisionally call the cyclical process of fall and salvation. We have proposed, based on the frequency with which this monomyth is encountered, that it must logically express some core existential concern of human nature. It is universal in that people in every culture and condition must grapple with it. Because it symbolizes something that is psychologically real, we should be able to understand it by studying it in terms of scientific cognitive and personality psychology.
To accept that the monomyth expresses core psychological concerns does not, per se, commit us to any particular theological or doctrinal position. It is fully compatible with a religious or a non-religious view of man. That is, what a religious person may call “following God’s will” is evidently some experiential and phenomenological reality. An atheist may accept the reality of this subjective experience and simply conclude that the person is ‘merely’ following their higher unconscious, or, say, their right brain hemisphere (McGilchrist, 2009).
But in any case, the cultural evidence of the monomyth suggests that human beings have traditionally associated such a state of pious humility as corresponding to perhaps the greatest happiness and psychic harmony obtainable. It is the height of hubris to disregard our myths and traditions simply because they originate in a religious climate that may no longer be fashionable amongst some segments of the intelligentsia.
Moral philosophers and cognitive scientists alike should scientifically study religious mythos — and in particular that concerning fall and salvation. By this the former will gain deeper understanding of man and the nature of religious salvation. The latter will gain insight into phenomenological realities that cannot be ignored if we are to have any effective science or technology of human happiness.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, 1949.
Edinger, Edward F. The Bible and the Psyche: Individuation Symbolism in the Old Testament. Toronto, 1986a.
Edinger, Edward F. Encounter With the Self: A Jungian Commentary on William Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job. Toronto, 1986b.
Edinger, Edward F. Ego and Archetype. Boston, 1992.
Edinger, Edward F. The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology. Boston, 1994.
Fleet, Barrie. Plotinus: Ennead IV.8: On the Descent of the Soul into Bodies. Las Vegas, 2012.
Hadot, Pierre. Plotinus:The Simplicity of Vision. Trans. Michael Chase. Chicago, 1998.
Hadot, Pierre. What is Ancient Philosophy? Trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA, 2002.
Jung, Carl G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. R.C.F. Hull, Trans. Collected Works of C. G. Jung, vol. 9, part 1. Princeton, 1959 (repr. 1969, 1981).
Jung, Carl G. (author); Segal, Robert Alan (editor). Jung on Mythology. London, 1998.
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.
McGilchrist, Iain. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven, 2009.
Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA, 2012.
Woodard, Roger D. Hesiod and Greek Myth. In: Roger D. Woodard (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 83–165.
In the English language version of the Lord’s Prayer there is a tendency to consider as connected the two phrases, Thy kingdom come and that which follows, Thy will be done. This is partly so because, like a couplet, these two phrases have identical meter and the last syllables rhyme, at least approximately.
However in consulting the commentaries of Church Fathers on the Lord’s Prayer, the view instead emerges that the phrase Thy kingdom come is more naturally linked with the preceding Hallowed be Thy name to form a unitary concept.
Consider when it is that we best and most naturally praise and thank God. Is it not in our moments of greatest joy and happiness? When some unexpected windfall occurs, do we not exclaim, or literally gush, “Thank you God!”, even, if in public, letting everyone around witness? Anyone seeing this understands exactly how we feel. There is nothing contrived or artificial. It is a natural expression of extreme, consummate happiness.
Therefore when we pray Hallowed be thy name we say in few words what might be expanded as follows: “Please let me experience true joy, happiness, and bliss, and with such fullness that it would cause me, being perfectly satisfied in the moment, to wish to hallow Thy name by giving sincere, spontaneous thanks and praise.”
Notice also how much more such spontaneous, heartfelt exclamation of thanks and praise glorifies God, that is, hallows God’s name, more than merely reciting a prayer with labored effort, even though that may be quite sincere. No, if we truly wish to most praise God’s name, then we must wish to have joy and happiness, for this makes our desire to hallow God’s name the greatest. Our happiness, which is itself evidence of God’s supreme love for us, and the thanks and praise this elicits, glorifies God.
This is an important insight. For how much better it is to pray for what we truly desire (i.e. happiness), and how much more strong such authentic prayer may be, rather than to merely make ourselves pray for what we believe we ought to pray for!
But then consider how the only way we can reach such states of happiness is when we surrender control, letting go of myriad forms of ego-drivenness, and let ourselves instead be guided by the Holy Spirit; and so inspired by grace, do God’s will, and by that to discover to our delight that what we have done brings some happy outcome. Previously we considered the suggestion that this surrender to the guidance of God is the main meaning of the kingdom (i.e., reign, kingship, rule, dominion) of God, a detail evident in other languages but somewhat obscured in English.
Therefore these two phrases, Hallowed be Thy name and Thy kingdom come are linked to form a unitary concept.  The desired end is stated first, and then the means: the end is to reach a condition of true happiness, and the means to discern and follow God’s guidance. We pray for these not in an abstract or remote sense, but for them to happen now, today, this hour or moment if possible. We pray to return to the condition which we may call, without trying too hard to define it precisely, the state of grace.
An ancient and rare manuscript tradition (see e.g., here) has a variant form of the Lord’s Prayer as given in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 11). In place of Thy kingdom come it reads, “May Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us.” This supports our view, shared by St. Gregory of Nyssa  among others, that to pray Thy kingdom come is in essence the same thing as to pray, Come Holy Spirit.
first draft: 15 September 2014 (please excuse typos)
- The words which follow, Thy will be done, would then be understood as linked with on earth as it is in heaven. We may address the significance of this another time.
- Graef, Hilda C. (editor, translator). Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes. (Ancient Christian Writers, No. 18). New York: Paulist Press, 1954. (pp. 52–53, 56).
Patristic Commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer
The following is a list of Patristic commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer, with links to original-language versions and English translations.
The Lord’s Prayer is a pearl of great price, a treasure of Christianity, the value of which is often obscured by its very familiarity. Tertullian rightly called it “truly the summary of the whole Gospel.” (De oratione 1; Migne PL 1,1155). More than a simple prayer, the Our Father constitute a spiritual exercise, a form of meditation and contemplation, and a complete philosophy of life, all contained in a few lines.
It is vital that Christians learn to pray it reflectively, with understanding. For this we have numerous commentaries of Church Fathers to assist us.
Perhaps no better preface for the following can be found than the following remarks of St. John Cassian, taken from Conferences 9 (full citation supplied below).
 … and the soul kept free from all conversation and from roving thoughts that thus it may little by little begin to rise to the contemplation of God and to spiritual insight. …
 For the nature of the soul is not inaptly compared to a very fine feather or very light wing, which, if it has not been damaged or affected by being spoilt by any moisture falling on it from without, is borne aloft almost naturally to the heights of heaven by the lightness of its nature, and the aid of the slightest breath: but if it is weighted by any moisture falling upon it and penetrating into it, it will not only not be carried away by its natural lightness into any aerial flights but will actually be borne down to the depths of earth by the weight of the moisture it has received. So also our soul, if it is not weighted with faults that touch it, and the cares of this world, or damaged by the moisture of injurious lusts, will be raised as it were by the natural blessing of its own purity and borne aloft to the heights by the light breath of spiritual meditation; and leaving things low and earthly will be transported to those that are heavenly and invisible. …
 This prayer then though it seems to contain all the fullness of perfection, as being what was originated and appointed by the Lord’s own authority, yet lifts those to whom it belongs to that still higher condition of which we spoke above, and carries them on by a loftier stage to that ardent prayer which is known and tried by but very few, and which to speak more truly is ineffable; which transcends all human thoughts, and is distinguished, I will not say by any sound of the voice, but by no movement of the tongue, or utterance of words, but which the mind enlightened by the infusion of that heavenly light describes in no human and confined language, but pours forth richly as from copious fountain in an accumulation of thoughts, and ineffably utters to God, expressing in the shortest possible space of time such great things that the mind when it returns to its usual condition cannot easily utter or relate.
Compilation of the list was considerably facilitated by: Petiot, Henri (alias M. Daniel-Rops; editor); Hamman, Adalbert (translator). Le Pater expliqué par les Pères. (2nd ed.) Paris: Éditions Franciscaines, 1962.
Authors are listed chronologically, in order of year of birth.
Notation: Migne PL = J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Latina; Migne PG = J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Graeca.
Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160–c. 225)
On Prayer (De oratione) 1–10
- Latin: Migne PL 1, 1149–1166
- English: Thelwall, Sydney. (translator). In: Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (editors), Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. (ANF-03), Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887. (pp. 681–684). (Text)
Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–c. 253)
On Prayer (De Oratione) 18–30
- Greek, Latin: Migne PG 11, 474–550; Greek text
- English: O’Meara, John Joseph (editor, translator) Origen: On Prayer, Exhortation to Martyrdom. (Ancient Christian Writers, Vol. 19) Paulist Press, 1954. (pp. 65–129); also Curtis, William Alexander (translator). Origen: On Prayer 15. Date unknown.
St. Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200–258)
On the Lord’s Prayer (De oratione dominica; Treatises 4)
- Latin: Migne PL 4, 519–544
- English: Wallis, Robert Ernest (translator). In: Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (editors), Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5 (ANF-05), Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886. (Cyprian: Treatises, 4, pp. 447–457). (Text)
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313–386)
Catecheses mystagogicae 5.11–5.18
- Greek, Latin: Migne PG 33, 1117–1124
- English: On the Mysteries11–5.18; Gifford, Edwin Hamilton; Church, Richard William (translators). In: Philip Schaff, Henry Wace (editors); A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Vol. 7 (NPNF2-07), New York, Christian Literature Co., 1894. (On the Sacred Liturgy and Communion, Lecture 23.11–23.18, pp. 155–156). Text
St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–c. 395)
On the Lord’s Prayer (De oratione dominica; 5 Sermons)
- Greek and Latin: Migne PG 44, 1119–1194; Greek text
- English: Graef, Hilda C. (editor, translator). Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes. (Ancient Christian Writers, No. 18). New York: Paulist Press, 1954. (pp. 21–84).
St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 337–397)
On the Sacraments (De sacramentis) 5.4.18–5.4.30
- Latin: Migne PL 16, 450–454
- English: Deferrari, Roy J. (editor, translator). Ambrose: Theological and Dogmatic Works. (Fathers of the Church, Vol. 44). CUA Press, 1963. (pp. 314–318)
Evagrius Ponticus (345–399)
Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer (Expositio in orationem dominicam); Clavis patrum graecorum (CPG) no. 2461
- Coptic: de Lagarde, Paul. Catenae in Evangelia Aegyptiacae. Gottingen, 1886 (reprinted Osnabriick, 1971).
- English: Casiday, Augustine (editor, translator). Evagrius Ponticus. (The Early Church Fathers). Routledge, 2006. (pp. 150–152).
St. John Chrysostom (c. 347–407)
Homilies on Matthew (In Mattheum) 19
- Greek, Latin: In Mattheum 19.4–19.9; Migne PG 57, 278–286; Greek text
- English: Homilies on Matthew, 19.6–19.12; Prevost, George; Riddle, M.B. (translators). In: Philip Schaff (editor), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 10 (NPNF1-10), Christian Literature Co., 1888, pp. 134–140. (Text)
Explanation of the Lord’s Prayer (Oratio dominica ejusque explanatio)
- Greek, Latin: Oratio dominica ejusque explanatio; Migne PG 51, 44–48
- English: ?
Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350–428)
- Syriac: Tonneau, Raymond; Deveesse, Robert (editors). Les homélies catéchétiques de Théodore de Mopsueste (Studie e Testi, 145), Vatican City: 1949.
- English: ?
St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
On the Sermon on the Mount 2.4.15–2.11.39
- Latin: Migne PL 34, 1275–1278
- English: Findlay, William; Schaff, Philip (translators). In: Philip Schaff (editor), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6 (NPNF1-06), New York, Christian Literature Co., 1888, pp. 38–47. Text
Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament 6–9 (= Benedictine edition 56–59 )
- Latin: Migne PL 38, 377–402
- English: MacMullen, R. G. (translator). In: Philip Schaff (editor), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6 (NPNF1-06), New York, Christian Literature Co., 1888, pp. 274–289. Text
St. John Cassian (c. 360–435)
Conferences 9.18–9.25 (On the Lord’s Prayer, De oratione Dominica)
- Latin: Migne PL 49, 788–802
- English: Gibson, Edgar C. S. (translator). In: Henry Wace, Philip Schaff (editors), A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Vol. 11 (NPNF2-11), New York, Christian Literature Co., 1894. (pp. 393–396). Text
St. Peter Chrysologus (c. 380–c. 450)
- Latin: Migne PL 52, 390–406
- English: Ganss, George E. (editor, translator). Saint Peter Chrysologus: Selected Sermons; and Saint Valerian: Homilies. (Fathers of the Church, Vol. 17). CUA Press, 1953. (Sermons 67, 70; pp. 115–123); Palardy, William B. (editor, translator). Peter Chrysologus: Selected Sermons, Volume 2 (Fathers of the Church) CUA Press, 2004. (Sermons 68, 69, 71, 72; pp. 274–296).
St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662)
A Brief Explanation of the Prayer Our Father to a Certain Friend of Christ (Orationis Dominicae expositio)
- Greek, Latin: Migne PG 90, 871–910; see also Greek text (pp. 323–352)
- English: Palmer, G.E.H.; Sherrard, Philip; Ware, Kallistos (editors, translators). The Philokalia, Volume 2, Macmillan, 1982. (pp. 285–305); Berthold, George Charles (editor, translator). Selected Writings of Maximus Confessor. New York: Paulist, 1985. (pp. 99–126).
Ayo, Nicholas. The Lord’s Prayer: A Survey Theological and Literary. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002 (Orig. 1992, Notre Dame University)
Hammerling, Roy. The Lord’s Prayer in the Early Church: The Pearl of Great Price. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
I’ve recently written about an approach to biblical interpretation that is, on the one hand, scientific and psychological, and, on the other, non-reductionistic and faithful to Christian teaching (e.g., here, here, and here). It takes as its basic principles: (1) that a central concern in every Christian life is the injunction of St. Paul, Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2); (2) that this transformation must include a psychological metamorphosis that encompasses both the modern meaning of psyche as mind and its classical meaning as soul and, and includes the moral, intellectual, volitional, and desiring aspects of human nature; (3) that the Bible supplies a detailed plan for effecting this psychological transformation; and (4) much of this plan is ‘encoded’ in figurative language and requires careful attention and a contemplative frame of mind to recognize and understand. The approach I’ve suggested could be described as a more modern version of the allegorical methods used by Philo of Alexandria (Philo Judeaus) and by many Church Fathers, including Origen, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. The question considered here is what to call this method.
Below are some alternative terms and various pros and cons of each. The terms are grouped into three categories. In the first are several terms that seem basically correct, but perhaps too general. The second includes those terms which I consider the best of those currently in use. The third lists several modern terms that are questionable, but which are included for completeness.
I also thought it might be helpful generally to list all the various terms in use today to denote this sort of allegorical exegesis in one place. The short bibliography at the end contains some references that appear especially pertinent, but is by no means comprehensive. I hope to add information to this post as I run across new terms or references of interest. The present, then, could be considered just a down payment or first installment.
allegorical exegesis. This is perhaps the most widely used term today, but it has two drawbacks: (1) it is nonspecific, as there are a variety of different ways to allegorically interpret Scripture (psychologically, morally, prophetically etc.); and (2) over the centuries, ‘allegory’ has come to mean a figurative story that is not actually true (as in a fable). Thus, ‘allegorical exegesis’ might imply to some people that what is being interpreted (the Old Testament or the New Testament) is not historically true. This connotation of non-historicity is not implied by the etymology of the word itself, which comes from alla (different) and agora (assembly) – thus allegory literally suggests ‘that which one would not say in the crowd’ or basically a hidden meaning as opposed to a more obvious one. Nevertheless, even in ancient times the word allegory tended to imply that something had only figurative meaning.
parabolic interpretation. From the Greek word parabole. Because of its connection to the word parable, this term may again tend to suggest that the material being interpreted is not literally true.
figurative interpretation. The principal disadvantage with this term that it is very nonspecific. It gives no clue at all as to the kind of truths that are being figuratively represented, or the principles by which they are decoded.
nonliteral interpretation. Even less specific than figurative; too generic to be of much use.
mystical exegesis. This could, following ancient Greek usage, imply a secret meaning. That is problematic in itself, because nonliteral meanings, while they may be subtle or hard to see, are not necessarily secret in the sense of being reserved for a few initiates. Further the term might be understood as denoting a connection with religious mysticism (e.g., withdrawal from the world, pursuit of ‘mystical experiences’ etc.), which is not necessarily or even usually the case with the form of exegesis being considered here.
hyponoia. Another word used by the ancients, meaning basically ‘knowledge beneath the surface.’ Like the other terms above, this doesn’t indicate the nature of deeper knowledge being sought, or how it is obtained.
noetic exegesis. This term was apparently first used (at least, in connection with Biblical interpretation) by Eric Osborn (1995, 2005), and later by Blossom Stefaniw (2010). ‘Noetic’ here has two relevant aspects. First it implies a search to uncover meanings in Scripture that help to improve or transform the nous (i.e., the ancient Greek word for what we might call the Intellect or higher Reason, and which in Greek patristic literature is sometimes considered to be the immortal human soul itself). Second, the method itself can be properly called noetic insofar as it seeks to go beyond literal meanings of words (understood by discursive thought, or dianoia) to the deeper intelligible truths discernible only to the apprehending, nondiscursive part of the mind (nous).
One possible limitation of this term is that the form of exegesis we are considering involves more than just the apprehending, noetic intellect. Discursive thinking is also involved in relating intuited principles to one another other or to facts and memories, to envision applications in ones life, and so on. For example, reading the story of Cain and Abel, it might strike one as a noetic inspiration that the two figures symbolize competing negative and positive elements of ones mind or psyche. But then one might go on to compare these two figures with other, similar pairs – Jacob and Esau, Moses and Pharaoh, etc. To elaborate the noetic insight would involve use of other mental powers.
The term gnostic exegesis, more or less a cognate, has some ancient precedent, but would likely invite unwanted associations to Gnosticism if used today.
sapiential exegesis. This could serve about equally well as noetic exegesis as a terminological convention. It implies both that the object of exegesis is to gain wisdom, and that wisdom is needed to apply the method.
anagogical exegesis. This is a very interesting term, used by some Church Fathers and also in the Middle Ages. Originally it meant ‘going or being led higher’, which could be understood in this context to mean any or all of the following: seeking a higher meaning in Scripture; using exegesis to attain a higher level of mental/spiritual development; elevating one’s mind by interpreting Scripture; or contributing generally to an uplifting movement or current of thought (Laird, 2007). In the Middle Ages, “anagogical” exegesis often became focused on finding allusions to the afterlife of the soul in Scripture, a different usage which might conflict with the more sapiential meaning of the term. Also, even in the older and original sense (i.e., of the Church Fathers), anagogical exegesis spans two somewhat distinct levels of meaning of Scripture: those corresponding to what Origen called the psychic (soul) versus pneumatic (spiritual) levels. Relative to Origen’s distinction, our principle interest here is psychic level – i.e., the level of psyche: mind, intellect, rationality, will, desire, and emotion. The other, higher Origenistic sense of anagogy, which suggests a connection to higher mystical states, including an apophatic union with God free from all concepts or thoughts, is not our immediate concern here.
spiritual or pneumatic exegesis. As suggested above, it could be argued that these terms should be reserved for a level of exegesis that relates to the highest levels of spiritual development and union with God, e.g., apophatic experience.
theoria or theoreia. This term, often used by St. Gregory of Nyssa in connection with exegesis, has two relevant meanings for us. First it can mean contemplation in a sense that is basically the same as noesis: an understanding of the intelligible meaning of Scripture, as opposed to its historical and literal meanings. Second, it can imply what we today might call a theoretical or scientific understanding, i.e., of the rules and principles of our moral purification and spiritual advancement as figuratively presented in Scripture.
Finally to be considered are four modern psychological terms.
psychological exegesis. This term is appropriate, provided we understand psyche in the traditional sense that includes both mind and soul. However, left unqualified or taken out of context, the term might be misunderstood to imply a connection with modern, reductionistic psychological theories. An alternative term, following Origen, might be psychic exegesis.
depth-psychological exegesis. This term has been used in recent decades mainly by certain German scholars. However ‘depth psychology’ can have several different meanings. Most who have used the term have meant it in a fairly restrictive sense as implying a basis in psychoanalytic or Jungian theory; Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict (2008) made some harsh criticisms of depth psychological exegesis, but he was referring to this more restrictive meaning of the term.
My own view is that the kind of exegesis we are considering here is accurately termed ‘depth psychological’ in the sense that it includes in its scope certain processes in the depths (or heights) of the human psyche, but not in the sense of corresponding to Freudian or Jungian theory.
psychodynamic exegesis. Most of the problems with the preceding term would apply here as well.
existential exegesis. A good term in that it implies existential relevance to the individual, but it potentially inherits all the ambiguity associated with the nebulous word ‘existentialism’.
Overall, of all the terms considered here, perhaps the best are sapiential exegesis, noetic exegesis, and anagogic exegesis.
In the end, we might consider that this form of exegesis may be such that it is inherently impossible to define a single term. Why? Because perhaps the very mental processes were are investigating here – noesis, intellection, discernment, etc. – are the very ones by which we know intelligible principles and assign or interpret names. In other words, it may be something of an ‘error of logical typing’ to try to name the very processes by which we name things. I wouldn’t insist on this view, but it does seem like a possibility. However to the extent it might be true, we may need to content ourselves with a more ‘poetic’ or intuitive approach to naming this style of exegesis: to have, for example, multiple names, each one highlighting a different aspect, and to use these different names in a fluid and flexible way.
The passage below shows that even as inspired an exegete as St. Gregory of Nyssa recognized the difficulty of finding a single term for this form of exegesis. In the passage below, from the Prologue to his Homilies on the Song of Songs, he uses a wide range terms.
In the end, we should not forget that this form of interpretation is not a name or concept, but an experience.
By an appropriate contemplation [θεωρίας] of the text, the philosophy [φιλοσοφίαν] hidden in its words becomes manifest once the literal meaning has been purified by a correct understanding [έννοίαις]. …
I hope that my commentary will be a guide for the more fleshly-minded, since the wisdom hidden (in the Song of Songs) leads to a spiritual condition of the soul [πνευματικήν τε και αϋλον τής ψυχής κατάστασιν]. …
Because some members of the Church always think it right to follow the letter of holy scripture and do not take into account the enigmatic [αινιγμάτων] and deeper meanings [υπονοιών], we must answer those who accuse us of doing so. … If anything in the hidden, deeper [έπικρύψεως έν ύπονοίαις], enigmatic [αινίγμασιν] sense cannot be cannot be understood literally, we will, as the Word [Logos] teaches and as Proverbs says [Pro 1.6], understand [νοήσαι] the passage either as a parable [παραβολην], a ‘dark’ saying [σκοτεινόν λόγον], sage words [ρήσιν σοφων], or as a riddle [αινιγμάτων].
With regards to anagogy [άναγωγής θεωρίαν], it makes no difference what we call it – tropology [τροπολογίαν] or allegory [άλληγορίαν] – as long as we grasp the meaning [νόημα] of (Scripture’s) words. …
They instruct not only through precepts but through the historical narratives: both lead to knowledge of the mysteries [γνωσιν των μυστηρίων] and to a pure way of life [καθαράν πολιτείαν] for those who have diligent minds.
St. Paul also uses exegesis [έξηγήσει] looking to what is most useful, and he is not concerned about what to name the form of his exegesis [έξηγήσεως]. … And there is a passage where he calls the more obscure comprehension and partial knowledge [γνωσιν] a mirror and a riddle [αΐνιγμα ](1 Cor 13, 12). And again he says the change from literal[σωματικων] meanings to noetic [νοητά] is a turning [έπιστροφην] to the Lord and a removal of the veil (2 Cor 3, 16). But in all these different figures and names for noetic interpretation [νουν θεωρίας] he is describing one form of teaching to us, but we must [sometimes] pass over to the immaterial [αϋλόν] and noetic interpretation [νοητην θεωρίαν] so that more corporeal thoughts are changed into something perceived by the intellect and rational mind [νουν και διάνοιαν], the more fleshly meaning of what is said having been shaken off like dust (Mt 10, 14).
And he says, “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3, 6), because in many passages the historical account does not provide examples of a good life if indeed we stop at the bare facts.
All these and similar examples should serve to remind us of the necessity of searching the divine words, of reading [προσέχειν τη άναγνώσει] them and of tracing in every way possible how something more sublime [ύψηλότερος] might be found which leads us to that which is divine and incorporeal [θειότερά τε και άσώματα] instead of the literal sense [διάνοιαν].
Unless a person contemplates the truth through philosophy [φιλοσοφίας ένθεωρήσειε την άλήθειαν], what the text says here will be either inconsistent or a fable [μυθωδες].
~ St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, 5.10-7.5; based on (with a few word changes) McCambley (1987) and Heine (2012), pp.362–363; MPG 44 775ff.; italics mine.
Beier, Matthias. ‘Embodying Hermeneutics: Eugen Drewermann’s Depth Psychological Interpretation of Religious Symbols‘. Paper presented at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, New Brunswick, NJ, March 1998.
Heine, Ronald E. ‘Gregory of Nyssa’s Apology for Allegory.’ Vigiliae Christianae, 38(4), 1984), pp. 360–370.
Laird, Martin. Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Lauro, Elizabeth Ann Dively. The Soul and Spirit of Scripture within Origen’s Exegesis. Leiden: Brill, 2005.
Martens, Peter. Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life. Oxford University Press, 2012.
McCambly, Richard Casimir. ‘Notations on the Commentary on the Song of Songs by Gregory of Nyssa.’ < http://www.lectio-divina.org > Accessed 23 Nov. 2013.
McCambly, Richard Casimir. Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Commentary on the Song of Songs. Hellenic College Press, 1987. ISBN 0917653181
Osborn, Eric Francis. ‘Philo and Clement: Quiet Conversion and Noetic Exegesis.’ Studia Philonica Annual, 10, 1998, 108–124.
Osborn, Eric Francis. Clement of Alexandria. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. ‘Biblical Interpretation in Conflict.’ In: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (author), José Granados (editor), Carlos Granados (ed.), Luis Sánchez Navarro (ed.), Opening Up the Scriptures: Joseph Ratzinger and the Foundations of Biblical Interpretation, Eerdmans, 2008.
Stefaniw, Blossom. Mind, Text, and Commentary: Noetic Exegesis in Origen of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind, and Evagrius Ponticus. Peter Lang, 2010.
One of the more psychologically interesting and insufficiently studied passages found in the Gospels is:
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
~ Matthew 7:3–5 (KJV)
The reference to the beam in ones eye is an extremely powerful image. It’s a figure of speech, of course, since a roof beam (Greek word δοκός or dokos1, also translated ‘plank’, ‘log’ or ‘timber’) obviously cannot fit in an eye. The power of the statement comes by comparing it to a mote, a small speck of dust, which may be in another’s eye and impairing the other’s vision. Jesus is saying: “Why worry about some small way in which another person’s views are limited. Worry about the huge ways in which your own views are distorted.” That’s how I take it, at any rate, and it seems like a reasonable interpretation.
This is one of those extremely canny sayings of Jesus Christ recorded in the Gospels. If someone were to ask me what reasons there are for believing that Christianity is a divinely inspired religion, I would include on the list these canny sayings of Jesus. They are incisive, cutting through layers of artifice and illusion to get to the heart of the things that really concern us as human beings. Nothing else in the literature of the West can compare to them — not in Plato or the Greek tragedians, not even in the Old Testament do we find such an abundance of these sayings.2 There is something extraordinary, otherworldly about them. One may recall the words of the Pharisees’ officers, sent to arrest Jesus but returning bewildered and empty-handed: “Never man spake like this man.” (John 7:46; KJV)
This remarkable level of insight and honesty is evident in the passage above. It speaks with extraordinary directness to a very real aspect of our experience. Examining the meaning of words, and relating them to certain principles of modern psychology, we can appreciate even better the importance and relevance of the beam in the eye.
Perceptual and Cognitive Schematizing
This word-square and others like it, recently circulated around the internet. The idea is that when you look at the square, one word, out of the dozens it contains, will leap out and present itself to awareness. These squares have been presented in a casual way — as little more than a parlor game — to analyze ones personality or “what you want in life”. However there are some serious psychological principles at work here.
If you experiment with one of these squares, you will find that your current state of mind affects what word leaps out at you. If your mind is on work, or on a romantic relationship, or on philosophy, or on your faith — in each case a different word will appear. This illustrates most strikingly the truth that ones intentions determine ones perceptions. What your heart is set on at the moment, what you are most concerned about, what you desire — that will determine which word you see.
This principle of intention precedes perception is, of course, a general one in operation all the time. It affects how you visually process information when walking outside, for example. What strikes your attention — people, trees, buildings, whatever — will vary. A boy with his mind on girls will walk on a city street and notice womens’ hemlines and the contours of blouses. An angry and combative man will walk down the same street and notice the physique and demeanor of other men, subconsciously sizing them up, as though to judge whether he could defeat them in a fight. A guilty person may notice the expressions on other people’s faces, looking for signs of disapproval, or may notice policeman and guards. There is nothing speculative about this. You can verify the phenomenon yourself any day by taking a walk. What you see reflects the intentions you have at any time.
A corollary of this principle is that the stronger, more urgent, and more pronounced ones intentions are, the more that attention will selectively focus on certain kinds of objects.
It similarly follows that this principle must also affect our inward perceptions: those features of our interior mental life which we notice at any given time, and those we do not notice, depend on our intentions and desires.
Not only do intentions determine what ones sees, but what one doesn’t see. If attention is on one thing, it cannot be on another. And the more exaggerated ones intentions and desires are, the more one will filter out unrelated perceptions. If one is driven by appetite, covetousness, fear, or anger, one may pass by dozens of smiling, friendly people without realizing it. In a foul mood one does not see the flowers in bloom or notice the lovely countryside; these things might as well not exist.
This I believe is the meaning of the beam in the eye. When ones intentions are disordered, ones perceptions are in chaos. Instead of seeing the entire world as a harmonious whole, one perceives it fragmented and disjointed. One notices small pieces of the perceptual field which relate to sex or fear or anger or whatever — and disregards the rest.
To the degree one is in such a disordered mental state, one is not really living in the world at all — not the world as it is. Instead one is living in a kind of distorted caricature of the world. It’s the world of the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave; not a vibrant world of life, spirit, meaning, happiness, and satisfaction.
What, then, is the alternative to the beam in the eye? Naturally we have intentions, and these change depending on time and situation. But it stands to reason that, ideally, these intentions should be harmonious, one intention in balance with the others. Moreover, as religious people — whether, Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus — we believe in God’s superintending providence. God guides all at once — the world, events in our lives, our intentions, and our emotions — to coincide and harmonize. We do have free will, however, and must use this free will to moderate and purify our intentions, so as to keep them in balance. We must keep our appetites within the bounds of what our nature requires at the present time. This precludes letting any intention become unnaturally strong and dominant.2
This moderation of appetites and passions is not necessarily an easy thing to accomplish, but it is an attainable skill. It comes from experience and practice, from self-insight, from the intellectual development supplied by philosophy, and by the moral growth produced by religion.
If we can learn this great virtue of moderation (which the Greeks called sophrosyne, a virtue that doesn’t operate in isolation, but rather interacts in myriad ways with other virtues like courage, justice, wisdom, patience, piety, and humility) then we can remove the beam in the eye.
The resulting condition, I believe, corresponds to what the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow (1970) called “B-cognition” or “Being cognition.” One description of this state is one “in which the whole of the cosmos is perceived and everything in it is seen in relationship with everything else, including the perceiver” (Maslow, 1971, pp. 252–253).
I also believe that this is at least part of what Jesus means in the Gospels when he refers to the Kingdom of Heaven. Upon saying this, I must be careful to point out that some ‘modern’ psychologists have said similar things but with a substantially different meaning. That is, some have suggested that by the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus meant only a certain kind of happy human life; and from this they go on to claim that Jesus was not concerned with spiritual matters at all, and was saying nothing about an after-life; he was merely a social philosopher. That is definitely not what I’m suggesting. The Kingdom of Heaven in the sense I mean is not achieved by disconnecting our experience on earth from spiritual concerns, but precisely the opposite: by connecting it with spirituality. A critical part of producing a state of harmonized intentions, by which we see the world fully and completely — in clear and rich detail, with full depth and meaning — is by ‘tuning in’ to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit.
1. dokos can also mean an opinion, so there may be a play on words here. In Plato’s dialogues one of Socrates’ main missions is to alert us to how severely our souls are distorted by a habitual mistaking of false opinions for true knowledge.
2. Another such saying, one which seems thematically related to Matt. 7:3, is the light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light (Matt. 6:22). Indeed all of Matthew 6:19–34 appears relevant to the present theme.
3. We should keep in mind the possibility that exaggerated appetites come not from the body itself, but from a tendency of the mind to falsely interpret appetitive impulses.
Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971.
Pollock, Robert C. ‘The Single Vision‘. In: Harold C. Gardiner (editor), American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal, New York: Scribner, 1958 (pp. 15–58). Reprinted as and in Arthur S. Lothstein, Michael Brodrick (eds.), New Morning: Emerson in the Twenty-First Century, SUNY Press, 2008 (pp. 9–48). Originally published as ‘A Reappraisal of Emerson’ in Thought, 32(1), 1957, pp. 86–132.
White, Rhea A. ‘Maslow’s Two Forms of Cognition and Exceptional Human Experiences.’ 1997. < http://www.ehe.org/display/ehe-page2f56.html?ID=23 > Accessed 15 November 2013.
Today the Catholic Church commemorates the Apostle, ‘Doubting’ Thomas. Thomas doubted that Jesus had resurrected until he saw him and touched him in the flesh. Eventually he saw and touched Jesus, and then believed. But in response Jesus said, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”
Thomas can be interpreted allegorically as symbolizing a certain tendency of our ego to be overly rationalistic and to insist that material facts and logical proofs are the only genuine basis for belief. This doubting disposition denies the experiential reality of other valid forms of knowledge, like intuition, insight, Conscience, inspiration and faith (pistis). Significantly, Thomas means ‘twin’ in Aramaic. Our ego is like one of a pair of twins, the other being a more intuitive, authentic, or higher self. The ego must learn to loosen its overly tight control. We must admit to ourselves that sometimes we have valid knowledge from extra-rational faculties.
See if you can catch your own inner ‘doubting Thomas’ in action. For example, perhaps there is some article of Christian faith which you believe is true, but which your rational mind doubts or about which complains that logical proof is lacking. Your rational mind says, “You claim to believe this thing by ‘faith’. But what is this ‘faith’? How can it be seen, touched? How can it be proven to exist at all, much less be demonstrated to be reliable?” But despite this, the part of your mind responsible for conviction, for deciding “do I or do I not genuinely believe this to be true?” has the conviction. And by conviction we mean the same kind of ‘belief-in-the-trueness-of’ that a closely reasoned argument supplies. Consider the logical syllogism (1) if A then B, (2) A is true, (3) therefore B is true. If we know propositions (1) and (2) are both true, then we believe with absolute certainty that the conclusion (3) is true. That feeling of certainty is what is meant by conviction. I am merely suggesting that, if one examines ones thoughts closely, one may detect cases where one has the strong conviction of some article of faith, and that this conviction or convincedness is essentially the same as what is felt for a conclusion that is proven by explicit logic, as in the above example. But the conviction produced by faith is such that it is not accompanied by awareness of a rational argument that proves, in a logical sense, the belief.
Obviously not all forms of ‘unreasoned’ belief are of this character. It is possible to believe something on mere superstition, because it is flattering, or because of wishful thinking. Religious beliefs based on these things are not genuine faith, even though an ignorant person — namely one who does not know what true faith is — may claim otherwise. Atheist writers find ample ammunition from such examples with which to discredit religion. True faith, however, is not like these other things. It is characterized by genuine conviction; these other cases produce, at best, a shallow delusion or pretense of conviction.