Archive for the ‘Virtue’ Category
IGHT THOUGHTS by Edward Young (1683—1765) might easily be the greatest English literary work of the last 300 years. A masterpiece judged by any standard, it rivals the works of Shakespeare and Milton and exceeds those of Young’s better-known contemporary, Pope. It is testimony to the infidelity of the modern age the neglect into which this great work has fallen.
Its topics? Ones of greatest moment and timeless concern: Life, Death, Eternity, heaven-sent Philosophy, and the true meaning of the Delphic maxim, Know Thyself.
Young published Night Thoughts in nine installments or Nights. The present new edition, with an introduction and notes for modern readers, supplies the first four Nights — originally conceived by Young as a complete work, and which supply the work’s main lines of thought. For a limited time an advance copy of the new edition is available for free here.
The topic, the motives, and the poetic skill of Young are magnificent. The work is inspired, and one of the great jewels of English literature, not to be missed.
A Meditation on Psalms 1:1–2
 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
 But his delight is in the law of the LORD;
and in his law doth he meditate day and night. (Psalms 1:1–2)
HE Bible is a key to salvation. Psalms is a key to the Bible. Psalm 1, a proem, is a key to Psalms; and its key verses 1 and 2. Careful study and meditation on these verses therefore profits us greatly.
 Blessed is the man
In the Septuagint, the Greek word translated as Blessed is makarios, which means either blessed or happy; both are understood to apply here.
Also, consider that when one feels especially blessed, with this is much joy. We may therefore read here, “this man is blessed, happy, joyful, and lacks nothing.” Such, then, is our goal.
After the goal is stated, we are warned of three principal obstacles. These are three categories of mental error — which, as we will see, correspond to Plato’s three divisions of the human soul. (Republic 4.434d–4.445e, 9.588b–9.591e; Phaedrus 246a-e; 253c–256c)
that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Counsel of the ungodly aptly describes the principal sin to which the rational or logical division of our mind (Plato’s logistikon) is vulnerable. This, our faculty of discursive reasoning, is prone to entertain innumerable schemes, plans, anxieties, and similar vain thoughts. Some such thoughts involve positive projects we imagine; some concern needless fears and anxieties; some, of guilt and remorse. All such ruminations are almost always baseless and imaginary. Attention to ones thoughts will reveal the seriousness of this problem: one can seldom go a minute, or even a few seconds, without ungodly counsel.
The word walketh is appropriate here, because once one accepts the initial impulse to follow such thoughts, they lead the mind — for minutes or even hours — on a journey; yet they lead nowhere, or certainly nowhere good.
nor standeth in the way of sinners,
The way of sinners refers to mental errors of the concupiscent nature, or what Plato called epithymia (or the epithymetikon). These are temptations to inordinate or untimely sensory pleasures, such as over- or improper indulgence in food, drink, sex, etc.
It is called standing, because such temptations characteristically assault us when we are, so to speak, mentally stationary — that is, not actively applying our minds in ways connected with our spiritual development, helping others, or attending to productive tasks. “An idle mind,” it is said, “is the devil’s workshop.”
nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
No less problematic (and, for religious people, often more so) are mental errors of our irascible and honor-seeking nature — what Plato called thumos (or our thymoeides). A principal form of such temptations is ones tendency to judge, condemn, or criticize others. Hence this is like a seat upon which one sits and presumes to pass judgment.
Again, by observing the thoughts one may easily see this strong, chronic tendency to find fault with people and things, and, in short, to think negatively.
 But his delight is in the law of the LORD;
We are next told that the blessed man is one who delights in the law of the LORD.
Here the law of the Lord must not be mistakenly understood as meaning written rules, commandments, prohibitions, and so on. To orient ones life to codified rules is legalism. Legalism does not bring happiness.
Law (in Hebrew, Torah) here is properly understood as the promptings of the Holy Spirit which gently guide us to do God’s will.
A parallel may be drawn here with the Chinese concept of Dao, which may be understood as the Universal Law that governs all things benignly and providentially. To follow this Law is to live in accord with Nature — a principle that has only positive connotations, and is never considered onerous or ‘against ones grain.’
We are to gently follow God’s will instead of willfully pursuing our own schemes and plans. For this to become a habit is the journey of a lifetime and a main task of salvation.
Ones reconciliation to God’s will is the message of the entire Bible. In the Old Testament, it is expressed by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In the New Testament, the entire life of Jesus, including his crucifixion and resurrection, epitomize the principle.
This condition is also called the Reign (or Reigning)  and Kingdom of God in ones heart and soul. Indeed, this reconciliation of wills is the main ethical concern of all religion.
The Greek word translated as delight is hedone, which may also mean pleasure (hence our English word, hedonism). In this state, God’s Law may be experienced as a delightful pleasure.
To achieve this state of reconciliation to God’s will is not only to feel blessedness and delight, but it also joins two basic elements of ones nature: the pleasure-seeking and the duty-seeking. The two become one in purpose.
A practice to recommend is to repeat these verses silently, as wit a mantra. And, so, these guides always near, one may ask in succession of each thought that occurs: Is this ungodly counsel? The way of sinners? The scoffer’s seat?
The bad thoughts being rejected, those remaining are more likely to accord with God’s will.
We end here, for it is better to discover for oneself the deeper meanings of Scripture. A basic interpretative approach has been outlined here; that, with what has been said elsewhere (Uebersax, 2012, 2014) is enough.
We may only mention one further promise of Psalm 1: the blessed man will be like a tree planted by the rivers of water (Psalm 1:3a). This can be understood as a restoration of the Tree of Life in Genesis 2:9.
The Tree of Life also appears Revelation 22:1–2, in the very last chapter of the Bible. The whole saga of Scripture, then, concerns a journey from self-will and the fall into sin — whence the Tree of Life is lost — to its restoration, which is a restoration of our soul as a godly Garden of virtue and delight.
Thus we do not err when we say that within these few verses the Bible’s entire message of salvation is epitomized. Wisdom is near for those who seek it, and for this we should be grateful.
Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA, 2012.
Uebersax, John S. ‘Principles of Psychological Exegesis of the Bible‘.
Christian Platonism website. <catholicgnosis.wordpress.com>. September, 2014.
Uebersax, John S. ‘Noetic, Sapiential, and Spiritual Exegesis.’ Christian Platonism website. <catholicgnosis.wordpress.com>. November, 2013.
John Uebersax, 25 March 2015
 Uebersax, John S. ‘Thy Kingdom or Thy Kingship Come – What Does Basileia in the Lord’s Prayer Mean?‘ <catholicgnosis.wordpress.com>. July, 2014.
 The Tree of Life is watered by four rivers (Genesis 2:10–14).
The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.
At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.
To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.
A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of the Form of a triangle. (This conceptual principle is a powerful and distinct asset to those who try to understand who or what God is – but that is a topic to take up another time.)
With this innovation, our definition becomes “Charity is the doing of good to others for the sake of the Good.”
How does this help? One way is with respect to the Platonic principle known as the unity of virtues. Because all virtues, and indeed all good things, are instances of the Good, a corollary is that pure virtue of any kind, i.e., pure Truth, pure Beauty, pure Justice, etc., must be compatible with every other pure virtue. One cannot, for example, act in a way that affirms Truth yet contradicts Justice or Beauty. This principle supplies a means by which we may test whether a given act is true Charity: the act must awaken in us an awareness of Goodness generally; contemplating or performing the proposed act should leave our mind ‘basking’ in the glow of the train of all divine virtues.
This has some very practical implications for modern social activism. It means that one cannot be motivated by Charity and yet act in a contentious way. Suppose a person is angry that poor people do not have adequate health care. This is certainly an important concern. But if this concern takes the form of hateful denunciation of other people – the greedy rich, selfish Republicans, whoever – then it is not a form of Charity. Because anger is not consistent, in fact it is incompatible, with the Virtues. This helps us see why St. Paul defined Charity as he did: Charity “charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.” (1 Corinthians 13 4–5)
The Platonic perspective also reveals four further attributes of Charity. First, it is it’s own reward. Plato had a name for that kind of experience where we suddenly we regain our ability to see truth: who we are, what really matters, what brings us happiness. He called it anamnesis, literally unforgetting (an = un, amnesis = forgetting). True Charity should have the quality of anamnesis: it realigns our mind such that we are again in touch with our true nature; we become properly oriented to ourselves, other people, Nature, and God.
Clearly this is much different from, say, sending money in a perfunctory way to a “charity” like Greenpeace. Sometimes such actions are performed out of a sense of mechanical duty. Other times they may be motivated by sentimentality – as when one feels sorrow at the plight of abused animals. There is nothing wrong with such actions. They are commendable, in fact, and may well constitute virtues in their own right; our only point here is Charity is something distinct and greater than these things, and to lose sight of the distinction is to risk losing sight of the full meaning and significance of Charity.
Second, the proposed definition shows how Charity is ultimately connected with our own salvation (understood in a broad, nondenominational, psychological sense). The truth is that, however much we may believe or protest otherwise, our ultimate instinctive concern is not with others, but for ourselves. Said another way, our first order of business is to help ourselves. History is full of examples of people who neglected their own moral development for the sake of busying themselves with other people’s problems. To such as these one might well say, “Physician, heal thyself,” or “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew16:26) We must be constantly aware, in whatever we think or do, or our own need of salvation in this broad sense. This is the meaning of humility. The moment we lose sight of our immense proclivity for error, much of which goes under the name of ‘egoism’, then our ego takes over and all manner of mischief is liable to occur. Unless God or the Good is in the picture, any action, even giving a million dollars to help others, will have a strong egoistic component.
Third, our Platonic perspective helps shows how Charity is contagious. If you act towards another with true Charity, the recipient knows, in their own soul, that your act is accompanied by your anamnesis. And since anamnesis always engenders feelings like trust, love, and hope, the person knows that you have gained a reward greater than any human being could give you.
This, in turn, produces a sympathetic anamnesis in the recipient. It reawakens in them a remembrance of what the important, the finer things in life are. And this is cause for them to affirm life and thank God – not so much for whatever charitable benefit they received, but because God made such a world where Charity itself exists. It may literally restore the other’s faith in humanity. Moreover, the recipient is presented with the fact that they too have the ability to show Charity to others. A quality of a truly Charitable act, then, is that it leaves the recipient in a frame of mind eager to show Charity to others. When you act with Charity to others, then, often more important than the physical gift to the other is the psychological gift.
Finally, the Platonic perspective helps us to see that Charity is different from other forms of helping, giving, sharing, etc., in terms of epistemology. True Charity, because it is consciously aligned with God and the Good, opens the mind to an influx of higher thoughts – the mode of knowledge Plato called noesis. This is distinct from our usual form of rationalistic thinking, called dianoia, or reasoning. Thus, a characteristic of true Charity is that it is frequently motivated by inspiration, often more an act of spontaneous creativity than cold calculation. Again, this is not to say that we should avoid applying our logical minds to helping others – only that Charity is something distinct from rationality alone.
Platonism means this: the happiness and joy that comes from ‘being good.’ What does that mean? Just ask a child what ‘being good’ means – there is your answer.
It isn’t complicated. It’s a return to how we are naturally, to what makes us happy, to the pure and innocent state of mind we had before ambition, fear, or sex became issues for us. When we had no anxiety for the future, and each moment was an opportunity to live and to learn.
Truly the Kingdom of Heaven is such as only little children can enter. Platonism is about the return to that state. The driving force of Plato’s philosophy is, in fact, what he calls ‘the Good’. He teaches that we must reconnect our mind to the Good.
Some misunderstand this to mean a lifelong ascetical quest in search of the ultimate mystical experience, the Beatific Vision. But that denies the fact that children in their innocent simplicity have this vision of soul instinctively and continuously. “In heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:10; KJV)
Platonism is a form of yoga – to learn to live in this world with our minds yoked to the Good (or to God if you prefer, choose whichever term you like).
Our ‘opinions’ play a major role in producing the distorted lens through which we habitually perceive the world. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates, the principal figure, continually expresses concern about what he calls “false opinion” (pseudodoxia). The sophists with whom he contends symbolize the parts of our own minds that produce false opinions and insist on their reality.
Socrates’ two most familiar sayings are “Know thyself” (which of course is not his uniquely; before him it was inscribed on the temple at Delphi) and “If I am wiser than others, it is because I recognize my ignorance.” Both are prime strategies for overcoming false opinion. By knowing ourselves we gradually learn that what we really want is not material things, but those things associated with the Good (knowledge, virtue, truth, beauty, etc.)
Recognizing our own ignorance is also important. This is the basis of ‘Socratic skepticism.’ We have to admit that most of our opinions are that: merely opinions.
Once we remove the chains of opinion that bind us as prisoners in Plato’s cave, our mind is free to receive a truer form of knowledge (noesis), which is more immediate and intuitive. Conscience, in the original and true sense of the term (as opposed to say, the Freudian concept of a super-ego), is a form of noesis.
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.
One way of expressing the thesis presented here is this: if one were to design an ideal spiritual-philosophical system for Americans and Europeans, I believe it would contain everything that traditional Christianity has, except for some problematic and potentially dispensable doctrinal elements (e.g., the idea that religious authority can replace personal free inquiry in religious matters). One may participate in the psychological experience of Christianity, in my personal opinion, while at the same time reserving judgment on certain specific doctrines of this kind. Doctrine can never be perfect, because ultimate realities cannot be expressed in words; any attempt to do so must inevitably produce contradiction. Or to simply look at the matter historically, the Christian authorities were wrong about Galileo, and it is certain that some doctrines of today will follow the route of the earth-centered universe.
But such limitations are no cause to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. The Christian tradition already exists. It is the product of centuries of continual refinement, a consummate work, polished and refined by the wise, loving, and inspired hands of countless individuals – each potentially the image of God, but in any case a human being with angelic abilities and aspirations, unimaginable creative potential, and loving instincts Moreover, this tradition is an organic cultural whole, which operates according to principles yet unknown to science. The suggestion that one might begin from scratch, constructing a new, personal religion, spirituality, or psychological system of equal or comparable quality, by selectively borrowing pieces here and there is unlikely at best. Such a view is hubris of a very high order, and elevates to personal godhood that meager sliver of consciousness denoted by the word ‘ego’. One may as well try to equal Beethoven in writing a symphony, or Raphael in painting.
Although I am a Christian myself, for this article I wear my hat as psychologist. My interest in that capacity is to assist others, as best I can, to achieve psychological integrity and self-actualization. Nothing asserted is contrary to reason. To a significant extent I follow the theories of Carl Jung here (but disagree with Jung on several important points, and would hesitate to call myself a ‘Jungian’). More fundamentally, I follow the basic trend of intelligently-based rejection of radical empiricism that began with the Romantic movement and is associated, for example, with writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth. The leading principle of the Romantic argument – which has tragically been lost in the 20th and 21st centuries (yet are more urgently important now than ever) – is that Enlightenment rationalism allows no place for the experience of the sublime, or those things which give deepest meaning to our lives.
While written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the points below apply with similar force to other liturgical Christian denominations, such as the Anglican, Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic Churches. Many of the same arguments might also apply to traditional Judaism.
This, then, is sufficient introduction. What follows is a brief listing of specific points, organized around the categories of (1) Psychology, Anthropology and Ethics; (2) Cultus; and (3) Metaphysics.
* * *
1. Psychology, Anthropology and Ethics
Christianity is an advanced ethical system that promotes the abandonment of personal egoism.
The pronounced emphasis in Christianity on acts of charity follows from and supports the abandonment of egoism. In the West, Christian saints and charitable institutions set the standard for egolessness.
The abandonment of egoism, or humility, as it is technically known, also manifests itself in a surrender to God’s will. Here we encounter a constellation of concepts – Providence, Grace, the Logos, etc. – associated with an orderly plan for all Creation, and man’s role therein. These all point to the potential attainment of a state of harmony between thought, action, and Nature. While Christianity is often criticized as being dualistic (e.g., denigrating the natural world, and tolerating , or even supporting its exploitation), true Christianity aims for a condition of non-duality.
If one investigates the matter attentively and honestly, one will readily observe within oneself a definite capacity to (1) act in ways that harm oneself; (2) act in ways that harm others; and (3) have negative thoughts (i.e., thoughts which disrupt, rather than serve to integrate the mind). The honest person will also recognize a tendency to self-deceit, and lack of objectivity in evaluating ones thoughts and actions. Lacking a better term, we may lump all of the preceding under the provisional term of “sin.”
Sin, therefore, is a useful concept, because it denotes a range of important related phenomena, for which no other term is available. We could as easily name it “what traditional religions call sin”, but that would be a bit awkward. Various associations to guilt, punishment, penance, etc., or the idea that “sin” may be defined unconditionally by an ecclesiastic authority we may exclude from our operational definition.
This thing, “sin”, then, exists, and is to our detriment. Unless one is courageous and honest enough to accept ones capacity for “sin” in some sense, it is difficult to see how one will find happiness, achieve personality integration, or improve ethically.
Salvation. It is similarly apparent to the honest observer that one exists in a state of need and deprivation. Most of us live day to day in various degrees (often severe) of unhappiness and lack of fulfillment. (Recall Thoreau’s remark: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”) All too infrequently, we live in states of anxiety, depression, aimlessness, confusion, wasted energy, etc. For this reason, each person, then, instinctively seeks what we may call psychological salvation. Christianity is not necessarily the only theoretical means of achieving psychological salvation; but it is an established means, tested by time, designed for this purpose, and especially adapted to the personality structure of Westerners. It would be difficult to demonstrate that any other means is more effective.
The Christ Principle
Many psychologists speak of a “self-actualizing” principle in the human psyche: a force, drive, principle, or telos which directs one to levels of greater integration, completion and happiness. For Christians, this self-actualizing principle can be understood as an inner Christ. We may call it by other names, but that does not change the significance of this salvific principle.
Inasmuch as this principle is present in all people, it is reasonable to think of there being a universal Archetype – an original principle of which all individual instances are images. This Archetype would correspond to Jesus Christ as a cosmic principle. However, it must be admitted that this latter part is more speculative, and more a matter of personal faith and intuition. The point to be made here is that modern psychology affirms the existence of an individual self-actualizing principle, and this principle is both acknowledged by and central to Christianity.
The principle of forgiveness is central to Christian ethics. The earnest Christian affirms, “as I forgive those who trespass against me” with each recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The Apostle’s Creed also affirms as a basic Christian belief “the forgiveness of sins.” Christ died, Christians are taught, for the forgiveness of sins. Nearly his last words on the cross were, “Father, forgive them.” St. Paul, who became one of the greatest Apostles, was previously a great sinner — as though this aspect of his life was meant to engrain in our minds the availability of forgiveness.
If one probes deeply into human nature, one may observe that issues of guilt and forgiveness are of immense concern. Almost all of our difficulties, personal and social, relate, in some way or another, to an inability or failure to forgive. Yet there is never anything gained by not forgiving. Holding onto anger and resentment is a deep-seated and pervasive flaw in human character.
In no other religion is an emphasis on forgiveness so pronounced. Christianity might well be called a religion of forgiveness. That this is an ideal many find themselves unable to live up to completely is incidental for our purposes. What matters is that it is an ideal.
A central tenet of Christianity is that the human being is made in God’s image. This has profound implications for how we view ourselves and other people.
The eminent psychologist Carl Jung once wrote that, if one of his patients reported that he or she had returned to participation in the Catholic Church, he (Jung) considered that patient cured, or in any case advanced beyond the point that psychotherapy would be of further use. By this he meant that within the human psyche are archetypal principles and forces that are largely beyond our ability to scientifically understand, but are effectively dealt with by religion. Religion, properly practiced, in Jung’s view, is a primary means by which our culture has evolved for grappling with these archetypes, and achieving integration of the personality.
This brings us to the important subject of cultus, which we may define here as all the non-doctrinal practices and traditions of Christianity.
Opponents of religion and Christianity typically level their accusations against specific Christian doctrines. This mistakenly equate Christianity with doctrine.
But much of Christianity’s value comes from its cultus. This cultus is the result of a millennia-long process of cumulative development and improvement.
Just as our material culture – how to mix cement or build bridges – has improved through the centuries inexorably, regardless of regimes or wars, the culture of Christianity, its cultus, has been gradually improved and refined. Any time an innovation in cultus emerges, it is compared with the present counterpart and the better chosen. A successful innovation introduced one place can be immediately imitated elsewhere.
So Christianity has grown gradually to satisfy the aesthetic, intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs of its flock. When a process like this continues for a long time it produces considerable refinement. Christian cultus continually improves to accommodate the deepest needs and propensities of the human psyche.
Three important divisions of Christian cultus are Art, Literature, and Practices.
Fine art. Christianity has inspired many of the finest works of art that Western culture has produced, including paintings, sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass windows, and so on.
Music. Similarly, Christianity has inspired great productions of music from composers such as Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Schubert, Vaughan-Williams, and innumerable others. This superlative music evokes feelings and intuitions of the highest order, which no words adequately describe, although terms like Joy, Beauty, Wonder, and Mystery are related to it. But who has ever composed an Atheist Oratorio or a Skeptic’s Symphony?
Architecture. What has been said above can also be said of the magnificent churches of Christianity, the basilicas and, especially, the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. To enter one of these buildings is to enter the realm of the sublime – or, as some would have it, heaven itself.
Scripture. Even were it not religious, the Bible would command our utmost attention as an unsurpassed work of literature and psychology. Every aspect, problem, difficulty and puzzle of human life is somewhere addressed therein. It has grown organically, reflecting the judgment of erudite and lofty-minded collators and translators. It passes to us a gem of human wisdom and insight.
I do not believe the Bible is literally true in every detail. In fact, I find such an assertion contrary both to reason and Christian teaching itself! But I do consider the Bible as something sacred, numinous – as exemplifying or manifesting a reality higher than this material one. Whatever you seek from ancient lore, from mysterious writings of great import, however you honor that sacred human urge – seek it first in the Bible and you will not be disappointed. The Bible is your book. Approach it as if it were written for you alone.
Patristic literature. Along with the Bible, we also possess an immense literature by the so-called Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church, both West and East. Luminaries in this constellation of geniuses include Origen of Alexandria, St. Augustine of Hippo, the Cappadocian Fathers (St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nazianzus), St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose of Milan, and St. Maximus the Confessor, among others.
These great authors have produced profoundly beautiful and deeply insightful works. Nobody who reads them is disappointed. No modern writer today’s approach them degree of knowledge, rationality, and skill.
One might ask: if these writers are so profound, why are they not better known? The answer is largely that, in many cases, it has only been recently that their works have appeared in modern languages. Even the works of St. Augustine have not yet been fully translated.
Doctors of the Church. Another category of traditional Christian writers is that of the Church Doctors. Examples include St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Francis of Sales. Again, these writers show remarkable humanism and insight into psychology. It is most unfortunate that their works, sources of deep insight and inspiration, are neglected solely because they are Christian or Roman Catholic.
Christian mysticism. The Christian contemplative and mystical tradition is a living one. Today there are still many monastic centers, carrying on a tradition of mystical practices that originated in ancient times – perhaps even before Christianity. The works of, say, St. John Ruysbroeck, command our attention if for no other reason than their sheer beauty.
Asceticism. Many Westerners today, and even many psychologists, recognize the benefits of practices like mindfulness meditation and the watching and analyzing of thoughts. There is no doubt that these practices have evolved to a very high degree in Eastern traditions such as Buddhism. Yet no less impressive is the ascetical psychological tradition of the West, found in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. The Philokalia is an outstanding example of this tradition. The Western ascetical tradition is in no way inferior to the Eastern tradition, yet is better suited to the culture, moirés, and temperament of Americans and Europeans.
The Mass. Even were it viewed only as a form of ritual art, the Mass’s value would be more than sufficiently demonstrated. Cross-cultural evidence reveals a universal human interest in ritual. Ritual appears to satisfy needs that cannot be met any other way. Ritual is a language of the unconscious, and, as such, needs no rational defense. Many rituals, the Mass included, are connected with personal transformation. Because Carl Jung’s essay, ‘Transformation Symbolism in the Mass’ (Collected Works, Vol. 11, Psychology and Religion: West and East, 1975, pp 201-98) has treated of this subject admirably well, we need say no more here in this regard.
Other rituals. The ancient rituals, rites and ceremonies associated with special occasions – baptisms, marriages, the Easter and Christmas seasons, and so on – must also be mentioned. It is difficult to convey the aesthetic and deeply satisfying quality of these to any who have not seen them first-hand. They are a living connection with our ancient past.
In the tradition of Greek pagan religion, one sometimes encounters the idea of theurgy – or ritual practices aimed to promote spiritual growth, in connection with various gods or goddesses. Some people today find such ancient pagan religions attractive for this very reason. Yet within Christianity there is the same sort of thing – namely the liturgies, rituals, and sacramental practices – developed to a much higher degree. But in the case of Christianity, this is a living tradition, not one that modern people have tried to reconstruct based on scanty past evidence and conjecture.
Prayer. What good person has never felt the deep and spontaneous urge to pray for another, whether it be a relative, friend or the victim of unfortunate circumstance? The urge to pray is so universal that we can little imagine it not having decidedly positive effect – even if only in the mind of the one who prays. If we are to pray, if we are pray-ers by disposition, may we not conceive of a technology of prayer? Should prayer be the only aspect of human life in which tradition and the cumulative experience of others is be of no benefit? Christianity teaches us how to pray. Moreover, it contains a rich store of formulas and prayers suitable for every circumstance in life.
Christian prayer is supported by traditional practices. Consider, for example, the folding of hands by a Christian in devout prayer. In the terminology of yoga, this is called a mudra – a ritual position of the hands, thought to have psychological or spiritual value. It is good to study yoga, with its various mudras and asanas; yet one should not, in the process, neglect the store of comparable postures and actions in the Christian tradition – the kneeling, the crossing of oneself, the bowing of the head, the raising of hands in characteristic ways. The ritual positions and actions of a priest saying Mass are exceptionally interesting in this regard, yet are typically taken for granted.
Liturgical calendar. Over the centuries, the Christian Church has evolved an elaborate and rich calendar, associating festivals and commemorations with various days and seasons. These no doubt reflect very ancient traditions. They connect us with the changing seasons, and promote a harmonization of our lives and souls with the natural world
Veneration of saints. What is remarkable is not so much that there are saints, but that there are so many. Each saint is the expression of some virtue or human excellence of which the human being is capable. Each saint, it may be said, corresponds to some archetype of the individual soul. Each constitutes an ideal whose example we are naturally inclined to imitate. By studying the lives of the saints, we learn about our own deepest aspirations and potentialities.
The Holy Trinity. To some, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity may seem a strange and arbitrary one. But, in fact, the doctrine partly derives from the speculation and theories of pre-Christian, Platonic philosophers. The Trinity solves certain meaningful theological and metaphysical problems.
Divine Mother. Christianity also makes ample room for and pays due homage to a Divine Feminine principle. Admittedly, the written doctrine on this point is somewhat unclear and perhaps even a little contradictory. But, to return briefly to the idea of cultus, clearly at that level considerable attention is paid to the Divine Feminine, and this promotes psychological integration.
Angels. This subject is a broad one, but one aspect of particular interest is the idea of a guardian angel. This Christian concept corresponds to very ancient notions of a companion spirit associated with the individual person. I hope to write more on this at another time; for now let it suffice simply to suggest a possible connection between this concept and a Higher Self.
Communion of Saints. One of the most extraordinary innovations of Christianity is the concept of a communion of saints – a spiritual community of Christians, both living and dead, into a kind of super-personal organism or institution. This makes a lot of sense. If our souls are eternal, and if we may, as many suppose, communicate and help each other at a spiritual level, then would it not be in our interests to form some kind of spiritual organization for mutual benefit and to effect God’s work together?
Look at the challenges of the world today, the great social needs, the injustice, the terrible deprivation of so many. If you are reading this, it presupposes that you are the kind of person who is moved to concern and action by such things. Can you solve them by yourself? Perhaps you have tried, and, if so, likely have not gotten very far. Would it not make sense to at least explore the possibility of working within a spiritual communion of similarly inclined souls? If God wants these problems solved, would it not make sense that He would employ such a means as this?
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In the interests of the reader, this list has been kept short and minimal. Many more items could be included and elaborated on at length. Let these suffice, however, to supply an honest view of how one Christian views his faith. Hopefully even the most inveterate skeptic will discern that there is a much firmer foundation here than mere superstition, or failure to exercise disciplined reasoning – the two objections raised most commonly today against Christianity.