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A Meditation on Man’s Transcendent Dignity

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Satyagraha

Pope Francis

On November 25, 2014, Pope Francis addressed the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, exhorting them to greater concern for what he called man’s transcendent dignity. The next day one newspaper ran the somewhat misleading headline, “Pope Calls for End to Hunger.” Now clearly ending hunger is a good thing, and the Pope did mention it. But this was not his core message, which considered not so much man’s needs and dignity at a material level, but man’s transcendent dignity.

What, then, is man’s transcendent dignity? This is clearly too large and involved a topic to pursue in detail here. Rather it is more fitting to call attention to the fact that it is a question. Our first task, that is, is to come to a more clear and explicit understanding of this term, transcendent dignity, which we seem to collectively intuit has some valid meaning…

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Psychology and the Beam in the Eye of Matthew 7:3

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Domenico Fetti - The Parable of the Mote and the Beam - 1619 detail

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 δοκς 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

word_grid

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.

Notes

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.

Bibliography

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.

Catholicism and Transcendentalism: The Christian Consciousness

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Christian Consciousness 280x280The important 1967 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Populorum progressio (On the development of peoples) called for, among other things, a new transcendental humanism (§16, §20). In May 2011, Pope Benedict XVI, addressing the faculty of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, renewed the call for “a new, integral and transcendent humanism.”

Precisely such a transcendental humanism can be found articulated with great depth, insight, and beauty in the literature of the 19th century American Transcendentalists and Unitarians, many of whom were Christian. I believe that modern Roman Catholics would do well to examine this literature.  It is a treasure-trove of ideas and inspiration, and the ‘old religion’ expressed in a form uniquely suited to the American mind.

As an example, below are excerpts from an 1859 discourse by Octavius B. Frothingham, ‘The Christian Consciousness, Its Elements and Expression’.  (O. B. Frothingham, Christian Consciousness. Philadelphia, 1859; pp. 3—33).

* * * *

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit. (John 15:5a)

“HAVE you ever fairly mastered this thought: That once upon a time, eighteen hundred years ago, what we call Christianity was all gathered up in the person of a single man, who lived and breathed like other men, in the far-off land of Judea, — when Christ was Christianity, and all the Christianity there was on earth? … In that remote corner of the earth, Jesus of Nazareth stands alone, uncomprehended by the few who love him, despised or feared by the few who love him not, unheeded by the many who see in him nothing by which he can be distinguished from common humanity; solitary in person, and solitary in spirit, having little in common with his generation; solitary, with his great Religion folded in the secret place of his own heart. The mighty Truths which the world hail as revelations and build up into confessions, are his private thoughts. The creative forces which have wrought such moral results, and even something like a transformation in the sentiments of the most elevated portion of mankind, are the silent affections of his heart. The regenerating principles which have effected so much towards the growth of a new order of humanity, are the deep convictions of his individual conscience; and profoundly hidden in the experiences of his soul, are the spiritual laws that have since purified the piety and re-constructed the worship of millions of men. In that one peculiar being, as in a seed, [Christendom lies latent.] … The seed fulfils the conditions of all growth. It falls into the ground and dies.

“Ere long the fruit it was to bear, begins to appear. Little clusters of people like grapes on a vine are found in cities both near and remote from the place where he lived. They cling to each other. They grow together as if united by a common life, and attract the notice of all men by the singularity of their worship and behavior…. To them existence is not what it was; the world is not what it was; new thoughts occupy their minds; fresh affections, making old things seem distasteful, are yearning after congenial intercourse; an awakened moral sense abhors the practices in which they had before innocently engaged, and makes another order of the world necessary to their peace and satisfaction; strange hopes have taken hold on their souls; strange aspirations and purposes, which have altered their whole attitude towards their generation. They are one in the sympathy of a common Faith, Hope, and Charity. And what has begotten in these people, this new and singular spirit? They have seen, heard, conversed with, the men to whom this Jesus had communicated himself through some subtle influence which they could neither explain to themselves nor to others. They had no insight into his motives or intentions. Up to the very last hour of his life, they indulged a hope, which all his life long he had been laboring to dispel. His immortal ideas they failed to grasp, while they clung to his less significant words with a tenacity that nothing could loose. Yet, through all their stupidity and prejudice, his spirit had found its way to theirs. His being had bathed them like an atmosphere; had refreshed them like another climate. His character had shed itself like an aroma from his person, and penetrated invisibly to their natures’ roots. The mild radiance of his presence, the beaming of his face, the glance of his eye, the accents of his voice interpreting to their hearts words which their understanding could not apprehend, the indescribable serenity of his mien, so holy and so gracious, all expressed and imparted the spiritual life that was in him, so that when he died, that life was in various forms reproduced in those that knew him, according to their degree of susceptibility. And these, again, borne like seeds on the breath of the Spirit, spread the divine contagion even to distant lands, and made the attributes of the inward Christ visible in multitudes of communions, some of which knew him not, even by name.

“You will understand now what I mean by saying that Christianity was LIVED into the world. It was not built up by any skill in organizing establishments. It was not planted by sheer force of authoritative teaching. Men were not drilled into it, nor indoctrinated into it; they were BORN into it. It came to them as inspiration comes, and the effect of its coming was a new CONSCIOUSNESS, a new motive force, an original stamp of mind, and style of character. In a word, there was another life in the race….

“Christianity, let me repeat, was LIVED into the world. As a life, it reproduced and extended itself.   Its tendency, at least, nowhere completely fulfilled, it is true, but everywhere pushing against the obstacles in its path, was to re-animate and re-construct human relations….

“We have heard much lately about the Christian ‘CONSCIOUSNESS,’ as distinct from particular forms of belief or modes of thought; a general state of mind and affection that belongs to all genuine Christians alike, the partaking of which makes one a Christian, the lack of which makes one to be not a Christian; a prevailing and determining spirit, which, having the hidings of its power far down among the roots of human nature, distributes a secret but vital and quickening influence all through the substance of the moral and spiritual being, and diffuses abroad an aroma too delicate to be caught and imprisoned in symbolical books and sacred confessions, yet powerful enough to impress every spiritual sense and stimulate every spiritual desire. I believe there is such a spiritual Consciousness, common to all Christians, and distinguishing them from all who are not Christians more clearly than divines have ever succeeded in doing, while, at the same time, it prevents Christians, however artificially divided among themselves, from falling out finally with one another; a spiritual Consciousness which is nothing more or less than the mind of Jesus organizing itself in humanity….

“These are thoughts, vast, deep, shadowy. They are not dogmas; they are not opinions. They are spoiled and clipped by logical definition. They are spiritual truths, addressing themselves to the higher reason, which each may define for himself who can, or may innocently leave in the indistinctness which the soul best loves. They are inferences from what the Christian regards not as a notion but as a fact, a fact of inward assurance, a great conviction, that abides as a cornerstone, immovable in the deep soil of his heart. They are his translation into thought of a feeling that is deeper than all thought and runs before it.”

* * * *

One must read this material selectively. Along with sublime thoughts are a few prejudices and errors – many American Transcendentalists and Unitarians rejected, along with the harsh doctrines of Calvinism (from whence these movements evolved), many fine and noble elements of traditional Christianity.  For example, Frothingham writes,

“Put the intervening centuries by. Let your imaginations brush away, like so much dust on a window-pane, the vast Church that stands between you and him. Disappear, pope, cardinal, and priest; cathedral, chapel, shrine, altar, vestments, symbol, cross and goblet, keys and dove; vanish, creeds of every complexion, sects of every name.”

That is, in his appeal to  readers that they consult directly their Reason, Conscience, and intuitions for direct evidences of God, he goes further to question the validity of certain external forms of religion.  But remember that if we demand perfection of our saints, we shall have no saints. Despite certain prejudices, many of which are understandable if one considers the historical context, there is much that is saintly in these writings.

This caveat notwithstanding, there are times reading this literature that I am struck with a conviction that, in it, the prisca theologia, the ancient and venerable religion, reached its highest level of literary expression, before the radical materialism of the 20th century eclipsed the spiritual senses.  It remains there, providential, evidence of the action of the Holy Spirit in history, for us to consult and build upon.

This Old World religion, brought by the Puritans to New England and developed in the rich soil of village life in colonial America, I recognize as the same spiritual tradition in essence and fundamentals that was transmitted to me by Catholic sisters and priests at the parochial schools I attended as a child.

I should certainly try to follow up this post with more detail about the 19th century American Christian Transcendentalists and Unitarians.  One note of general interest to add here is that there is a direct literary and ideological connection between these writers and the Cambridge Platonists of the 17th century.  Besides Frothingham, some names of particular interest are William Ellery Channing, James Freeman Clarke, Francis Henry Hedge, and Abiel A. Livermore; but there are dozens more.

Additional Readings

Frothingham, Octavius B. Transcendentalism in New England. New York: Putnam, 1876.

Gardiner, Harold C. (Ed.). American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal. New York: Scribner, 1958.

Howe, Daniel Walker. The Cambridge Platonists of Old and New England. Church History, 57, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 470-485. Reprinted as Ch. 7, ‘The Platonic Quest in New England’ in: Daniel Walker Howe, Making the American Self, 189-211. Oxford University Press, 2009 (orig. 1997).

Livermore, Abiel A. Discourses. Boston: Crosby, Nichols & Co., 1854.

Wells, Ronald V. Three Christian Transcendentalists: James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry, Frederic Henry Hedge. Columbia University Press, 1943.

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