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A Beautiful Mind: Joseph Addison’s Religious Essays

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EADERS of this blog may download a free copy of my new book, a collection of religious and metaphysical essays by Joseph Addison which appeared in the The Spectator in 1711 and 1712. These are certain to delight and edify.  Addison is well known as one of the most skilled prose stylists in the English language; but few today are aware of the sublime quality of his religious essays.

Addison’s influence on both the English and American minds is considerable, yet largely unacknowledged today.

Download the ebook in pdf format here.



Plato’s Proof of God’s Existence

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St Anselm-CanterburyVit
MOST anyone who’s taken a course in the history of Western philosophy has run across the famous ontological argument proof for God’s existence associated with St. Anselm of Canterbury.  Actually several versions of the ontological argument have appeared over the centuries, the simplest one being:

  1. By definition, God is a with every perfection.
  2. Existence is a perfection.
  3. Hence God exists.

One of the most interesting things about these arguments is that they have attracted so much attention despite the fact that they are basically unconvincing.

Please don’t mistake my intentions.  Of course I believe in God; I only mean that these arguments, analyzed at the logical level, aren’t very good, and everyone knows that.  The strange thing is that, despite this, the ontological argument has been ceremoniously taught to philosophy students for at least a millenium.  It’s as if to say, “We don’t really have a good logical proof for God’s existence, but rather than abandon the project let’s practice with a second-rate one.”

Curiously, all this overlooks the fact that we do potentially have at our disposal a much better philosophical proof of God’s existence.  To call it a proof in the sense of a logical proof might be technically incorrect — it’s really more of a demonstration. [Note 1] Nevertheless, regardless of how we classify it,  its evidential value for supporting a belief in God is, I believe, substantially stronger than that of the ontological argument.  This experiential argument comes from Plato’s dialogues, most notably, the central books of the Republic and Diotima’s speeches in the Symposium.  It is illustrated as follows:

  1. Consider some beautiful thing — say an incredibly beautiful sunset, the kind that totally absorbs you in a profound sense of beauty, awe, and wonder..
  2. Now, instead of pausing in that experience alone — which is our usual tendency — elevate your thoughts still higher and consider that this is not the only beautiful thing.  There are many other experiences equally or more beautiful as this one.
  3. Then consider that there must be something in common amongst all these experiences — in exactly the same way that there is something in common for all triangles, all horses, or all trees.  That is, each of these things has some defining principle or principles, some essence.
  4. Consider further that a defining essence has, at least in theory, some existence outside of its instantiation in actual examples.  Hence we may conceive of the abstract “Form” of a triangle, which would exist even if somehow we were able to remove all physical triangles from the world.  If so, we may also suppose that there is some Form of Beauty, which is the principle that all beautiful things have in common; and that this may potentially exist independently of all beautiful things.
  5. Moreover, Beauty is not the only good.  There are also such noble things as Truth,  Virtue, Excellence, and Justice — which we also unhesitatingly consider good, which delight or assure us, and which can bring us very deep levels of satisfaction.
  6. And, just as with Beauty, we may suppose that there is some essence or Form for each of these other things: a Form of Truth, a Form of Virtue, of Excellence, of Justice, and so on.
  7. And finally, we may contemplate the possibility of some principle or essence which all these different Forms of good things have in common.  This, too, would be a Form — the Form of Goodness.
  8. God is defined as that being than which nothing can be more Good.  Therefore God is the Form of Goodness.

For me, this comes very close to being a fully logically persuasive argument for God’s existence.  But — perhaps more importantly — it can also be approached as a contemplative or spiritual exercise.  That is, as Plato himself presents this line of thought, one is not so much trying to logically convince oneself, as to elicit, by performing this exercise, an elevation of the mind to an awakening or remembrance (anamnesis) of an innate, intuitive understanding of God.  We might call this an experiential proof, or an anagogical proof.

It is, of course, up to each one individually to investigate this method and to determine how well it works; but I will add another thing. Not only does this demonstration supply evidence of God’s existence, it may also promote the development of a sincere gratitude for and love of God.  As one contemplates the nature of Goodness, that is, as one begins to become more conscious of the principle that, if there are good things, there must be a Form of Goodness, one also becomes amazed at the very idea that there is such a thing as Goodness.  And also that we, as human beings, seem particularly attuned to crave, seek, and experience Goodness.  It is quite remarkable that we have this word and this concept, ‘good’, such that we may apply it a huge variety of things and experiences.

The counter-argument of the reductionist will not do here:  he or she might say, “What we consider good merely derives from sensory, practical, and survival considerations; it’s all explained by Darwinism:  we desire and prefer certain things because they are advantageous.”  But that does not explain, among other things, why some of the things we consider most good – say a heroic sacrifice of some noble person – is not materially advantageous.

If, then, we accept that there is something deep and fundamental in our nature such that we seek goodness (which is to say, in effect, that we are moral beings) and also that there is some Author and Source of Goodness, and, further, that it is our destiny as immortal souls to enjoy an eternity of ever greater Beauty and Goodness, then naturally our gratitude to this Supreme Being is spontaneously aroused.

Therefore Plato’s ‘proof’ of God’s existence as the Form of the Good is not only logically appealing, but effective at the level of emotion and devotion as well.

Finally, there are definite connections between Plato’s wish to prove the existence of God, and the many proofs he supplies throughout the dialogues for the immortality of the human soul.  A new article (with some of the leading ideas raised here developed more clearly) considers that topic.[Note 2]


1. The word ‘proof’ means to try or verify something.  Not all proofs are logical.  Ones proves a gold coin by biting it.  Making evident to ones senses, whether physical or intellectual, that something is real is a valid form of proof.  The point of this article is to suggest that in theology one should not automatically equate proof with deductive syllogisms.

2. Since originally making this post I’ve discovered a few related references.  Most relevant is: Daniel A. Dombrowski, A Platonic Philosophy of Religion: A Process Perspective, SUNY Press, 2005.  Chapter 5 (‘Arguments for the Existence of God’) suggests that a precursor to St. Anselm’s ontological argument can be found in Books 6 and 7 of Plato’s Republic.  There are some similarities between Dombrowski’s discussion and the present one, such as an emphasis on the Form of the Good, but also major differences.  The main difference is that whereas Dombrowski  uses the Form of the Good and the principle of directly intuited knowledge (noesis) to construct a deductive logical proof for God’s existence, I believe Plato employs these principles to present an experiential proof.

The Theory of Human Collective Memory and the Atonement of Jesus Christ

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On this Good Friday, the points below try to tie together in a new way two different concepts:  the theory of the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ, and the theory of a human collective mind or collective memory.

1. Many psychologists (Jung and Freud included) have believed in the possibility of a collective mind or memory pool for the entire human race, such that, by some as-yet unspecified non-physical means, a mental experience of one person, once had, may become available for all other human beings to experience.  Some (limited) experimental evidence supports this theory.

2. The principle of a collective memory or collective mind is also found in many esoteric traditions (e.g., the Akashic Records of theosophy, the Adam Kadmon in the Kabbala, etc.)

3. Such a principle of a metaphysical collective mind would supply a possible mechanism for understanding in a new way the meaning of the theological principle of the ‘substitutive atonement of Jesus Christ’.

4. The theological doctrine of Jesus’ substitutive atonement holds that, by his life, passion, and death on the cross, Jesus Christ accomplished the actual or potential reconciliation (at-one-ment) of all human beings to God.

5. The atonement doctrine has several variants.  One especially problematic, but common, version is that Jesus literally, by his death, paid a ‘blood guilt’ or penal debt or which mankind incurred through disobedience to God. The difficulty with this is that it relies heavily on the terrible Calvinist doctrine of the innate depravity of human beings.  It also makes God out to be rather ungenerous, if not outright malicious, in requiring that a ‘blood guilt’ price be paid.

6. The collective mind theory supplies a potentially new perspective on the atonement of Christ:  by willingly accepting death, and completely subordinating his own personal will, Jesus of Nazareth achieved a level of humility, unselfishness, and union with God’s will entirely new for the human race. It set a new precedent of egolessness.

7. Jesus Christ having done this, then the thoughts, judgments, and insights by which he reached this peak of moral attainment, being those of a human being, would be deposited in the collective mind of humanity.  Thenceforth, all other human beings could potentially tap into this new mindset, and imitate it.

8. If so, this would potentially explain *why* God would want to incarnate as a human being, Jesus Christ.  In order to deposit those insights, judgments, etc. of Jesus Christ that enabled him to completely overcome his human ego into the collective mind of humanity, God would need to become a man himself.

9. Further, this model would help explain how individual Christians may follow in Christ’s steps.  Each person, by engaging in some new moral precedent or new sacrifice for the sake of humanity, would deposit new material in the collective mind, and thereby enable other human beings to do likewise.

10.  This mechanism would operate in addition to that of the historical and social example set by Jesus Christ, as transmitted by oral and written tradition, which is also a means by which the life, passion, and death of Jesus may be imitated and contributes to the atonement of humanity with God.

Origen of Alexandria: Purgatory or Paradisiacal School of Souls?

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The usual Roman Catholic and Anglican belief is that, after death, souls go to Purgatory. This is traditionally envisioned as a purifying fire, though many suggest that ‘fire’ is to be understood in a metaphorical sense, representing a potentially painful purification.

While it is believed that souls of the good will eventually join God in heaven, this would actually happen after the end of the world, the General Resurrection and the Last Judgment.  So, even one who lived the most saintly life on earth would not go to heaven immediately, but would need to wait until after end times before receiving his or her final reward.

So what do souls of the good do in the meantime?  If they sinned little, why would they  remain in Purgatory for a protracted period?

Some theologians suggest that in the intermediate state, that is, the period between death and the General Resurrection, redeemed and sufficiently purified souls may go to not to heaven, but to different place, which is itself pleasant enough to merit the name Paradise.

Scriptural evidence comes from Jesus’ words on the cross to the penitent thief: Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)   Jesus said not “some day” but today the thief would be in Paradise.

Origen (184 – 254 AD), the enigmatic and mystical Church Father from Alexandria, Egypt, conjectured on the intermediate state in his speculative work, On First Principles (De Principiis).  He suggested that perhaps the just, after death, go to a place, Paradise, which is a school for souls.  He also mentioned an ascent through various spheres of heaven, using some of the same imagery as Gnostics (who were active in Alexandria at the same time, and whose work Origen knew well).  There are also associations to Jewish Merkabah mysticism, something which Origen also was exposed to by virtue of his tenure as a teacher in Caesarea, Palestine.

An extract of his work follows.  (As Origen’s sentences tend to be long, I’ve parsed them into something like blank verse poetry to aid understanding.)

Origen on the School of Souls

On First Principles, Book 2, Chapter 11, Sections 6-7 (2.11.6-7)

6… I think, therefore, that all the saints who depart from this life

will [first] remain in some place situated on the earth,

which holy Scripture calls paradise,

as in some place of instruction, and,

so to speak, class-room or school of souls,

in which they are to be instructed regarding all the things

which they had seen on earth,

and are to receive also some information respecting

things that are to follow in the future,

as even when in this life they had obtained

in some degree indications of future events,

although through a glass darkly,

all of which are revealed more clearly and distinctly

to the saints in their proper time and place.

If any one indeed be pure in heart, and holy in mind,

and more practised in perception, he will,

by making more rapid progress, [then]

quickly ascend to a place in the air,

and reach the kingdom of heaven,

through those mansions, so to speak,

in the various places which the Greeks

have termed spheres, i.e., globes,

but which holy Scripture has called heavens;

in each of which he will first see clearly what is done there,

and in the second place, will discover the reason

why things are so done:

and thus he will in order pass through all gradations,

 following Him who has passed into the heavens,

Jesus the Son of God, who said,

I will that where I am, these may be also.

And of this diversity of places He speaks, when

He says, In My Father’s house are many mansions….

7. When, then, the saints shall have

reached the celestial abodes,

they will clearly see the nature of the stars

one by one,

and will understand

whether they are endued with life,

or their condition, whatever it is.

And they will comprehend also the

other reasons for the works of God,

which He Himself will reveal to them.

For He will show to them, as to children,

the causes of things and the power of His creation,

and will explain why that star was placed

in that particular quarter of the sky,

and why it was separated from another

by so great an intervening space;

what, e.g., would have been the consequence

if it had been nearer or more remote;

or if that star had been larger than this,

how the totality of things would not have remained the same,

but all would have been transformed

into a different condition of being.

And so, when they have finished all those matters

which are connected with the stars,

and with the heavenly revolutions,

they will come to those which are not seen,

or to those whose names only we have heard,

and to things which are invisible,

which the Apostle Paul has informed us are numerous,

although what they are, or what difference may exist among them,

we cannot even conjecture by our feeble intellect.


And thus the rational nature,

growing by each individual step,

not as it grew in this life in flesh, and body, and soul,

but enlarged in understanding and in power of perception,

is raised as a mind already perfect to perfect knowledge,

no longer at all impeded by those carnal senses,

but increased in intellectual growth; and ever gazing purely,

and, so to speak, face to face, on the causes of things, it attains perfection,

firstly, viz., that by which it ascends to (the truth),

and secondly, that by which it abides in it,

having problems and the understanding of things,

and the causes of events, as the food on which it may feast.

For as in this life our bodies grow physically to what they are,

through a sufficiency of food in early life supplying the means of increase,

but after the due height has been attained we use food no longer to grow,

but to live, and to be preserved in life by it;

so also I think that the mind, when it has attained perfection,

eats and avails itself of suitable and appropriate food in such a degree,

that nothing ought to be either deficient or superfluous.

And in all things this food is to be understood

as the contemplation and understanding of God,

which is of a measure appropriate and suitable to this nature,

which was made and created;

and this measure it is proper should be observed by

every one of those who are beginning to see God,

i.e., to understand Him through purity of heart.


Origen. De Principiis. Tr. Frederick Crombie. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV (ANF4). Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Eds. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1866-1872.

Written by John Uebersax

February 23, 2012 at 11:37 pm

Names of God in the Catholic Mass

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It is instructive to consider the various names of God used in the Catholic Mass. The list below comes from the regular Order of the Mass, variable Eucharistic Prayers I — IV, and variable Eucharistic Prayers for Masses of Reconciliation I — II, as shown on the web pages of Felix Just S. J. .


One God

God the Father

The Lord
Lord God
The Lord, Our God
Lord God Almighty
Lord, God of All Creation
Almighty God
Almighty God and Father
Almighty Father
Our Father
God Our Father
Father, All Powerful and Everliving God
Creator of All Life
Heavenly King
Holy Lord, God of Power and Might
God of Glory and Majesty
God of Love and Mercy
Fountain of All Holiness
One God, Living and True
Through All Eternity You Live in Unapproachable Light
Source of Life and Goodness
Our Living and True God
All life, all holiness comes from you through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ
Lord Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ Our Lord and God
Christ Our Lord
Lord God
The Lord
The Beloved Son, Jesus the Christ
Only Son of the Father
The Holy One
The Most High,  Jesus Christ
Maker of Heaven and Earth
Eternally Begotten of the Father
God from God
Light from Light
True God from True God
The Word
The Word that Brings Salvation
He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord
You Raise the Dead to Life in the Spirit
You Bring Pardon and Peace to the Sinner
You Bring Light to Those in Darkness
Our Savior
Our Savior, Jesus Christ
Savior of the World
Dying You Destroyed Our Death
Rising You Restored Our Life
Lamb of God
You Take Away the Sin of the World
Jesus Christ, Our Passover and Our Lasting Peace
Jesus Christ, Your (God the Father’s) Only Son, Our Lord
The Sacrifice which Restores Man to Your (God the Father’s) Friendship
The Hand  You (God the Father) Stretch Out to Sinners
The Way that Leads to Your (God the Father’s) Peace

The Holy Spirit

The Spirit
The Holy Spirit
The Lord, the Giver of Life (Holy Spirit)
Your (God the Father’s) Spirit


Written by John Uebersax

August 10, 2009 at 1:16 am

The Trinity as Communion

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This book is highly recommended: Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, by John D. Zizioulas, Eastern Orthodox metropolitan of Pergamon and modern theologian. Among other things, the book discusses a valuable new perspective on the nature of God, and, in particular on the Trinity.

This new perspective depends on an important logical innovation. We ordinarily tend to understand reality in terms of objects primarily, and relations secondarily. Our view of reality, that is, seems decidely object-centric: objects exist for their own sake, but relations have little more purpose than to give objects something to do.  We define ourselves, for example, as objects, not as relations.  One could almost imagine a universe that contains only objects and no relations.  Relations, in other words, have a kind of second-class status in our worldview.

However this view actually seems rather arbitrary. Are objects truly more important or more fundamentally real than relations? We have no strong reason to assume so. Could we not as easily shift our perspective, paradigm, or frame of reference, and see relations as primary and objects as secondary?  Perhaps relations are the important things, and objects serve mainly to connect or realize relationships.  (Need objects even exist at all?  Or could they be conceptual fillers we interject mentally to organize our perception of a reality composed entirely of relations?)

Among other things, such a shift would help solve the logical ‘problem’ of the Trinity: how can God, as an object or substantial entity, be both one and three at the same time? If we change from an object-centric to a relation-centric view of reality this seems less problematic. God, by such a view, might be understood as a relation or set of relations. Perhaps God would even be a Supreme Relation, analogous to how, in the object-centric view of reality, God is the Supreme Being. And could this Supreme Relation be Love?

I’m carrying this line of thinking a little further than Zizioulas does in his book, but the principle is more or less the same. Another summary of the book was given by an anonymous reviewer: “The main philosophical/theological argument is that nothing exists without communion, not even God.”

Implications for Ecumenical Dialog

Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, addressed the similar ideas in a written statement to an ecumenical movement (A Common Word) initiated by Islamic scholars and clerics:

In human language, in the light of what our Scripture says, we speak of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, but we do not mean one God with two beings alongside him, or three gods of limited power. So there is indeed one God, the Living and Self-subsistent, associated with no other; but what God is and does is not different from the life which is eternally and simultaneously the threefold pattern of life: source and expression and sharing. Since God’s life is always an intelligent, purposeful and loving life, it is possible to think of each of these dimensions of divine life as, in important ways, like a centre of mind and love, a person; but this does not mean that God ‘contains’ three different individuals, separate from each other as human individuals are

Because God exists in this threefold pattern of interdependent action, the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is one in which there is always a ‘giving place’ to each other, each standing back so that the other may act. The only human language we have for this is love: the three dimensions of divine life relate to each other in self-sacrifice or self-giving. The doctrine of the Trinity is a way of explaining why we say that God is love, not only that he shows love.

When God acts towards us in compassion to liberate us from evil, to deal with the consequences of our rebellion against him and to make us able to call upon him with confidence, it is a natural (but not automatic) flowing outwards of his own everlasting action. The mutual self-giving love that is the very life of God is made real for our sake in the self-giving love of Jesus. And it is because of God’s prior love for us that we are enabled and enjoined to love God. Through our loving response, we can begin to comprehend something of God’s nature and God’s will for humankind:

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love (1John 4:8).

Again, these comments were directed to Islamic scholars who had specifically mentioned the Christian idea of the Trinity as providing a basis for productive dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

This subject raises a more general point: we should be most reluctant to engage in strife between religious or denominations about issues that are largely definitional in nature, or which require definitions for their expression (and wouldn’t this include nearly everything?). Philosophy, it is often said, is the handmaid to theology. But in a certain sense theology is also dependent on philosophy (this was a major point of the 1998 Encyclical Fides et ratio, by Pope John Paul II). Theological arguments can only be expressed existing logical and linguistic tools. Regardless of how difficult a theological problem, paradox, or disagreement may appear, it is always possible that, as in this case, some fundamental innovation in logic may occur which solves it, or casts it in sufficiently new light as to offer hope for solution. Theological disputes are constrained by the and terms logical tools currently available. Should some new innovation occur, the problem may vanish and be seen as largely an artifact of inaccurate logical tools or terms. We ought, consequently, to be most reluctant to engage in strife about theological disagreements. How simple it would be to say instead, “Well, we appear to have different beliefs, but perhaps this mostly a matter of definition.”

Written by John Uebersax

April 19, 2009 at 8:16 pm