Not-love: the paradox of evil

The Christian tradition’s best minds concluded that evil has no existence in and of itself.

Contrary to supernatural-themed horror films and “folk theology”, there is no substance called evil that exists anywhere in the universe, corrupting people and causing bad things to happen.

Instead evil is defined as privation or absence of the good, in the same way that darkness is simply the absence of light and cold the absence of heat.

In broad strokes, consider what happened in Genesis:

God created everything, and at each stage saw that it was good. So we have the creator, the ultimate authority, giving each aspect of creation the stamp of approval.

We have God observing Adam and saying “it is not good for the man to be alone”, which is the first instance of something “not good” in creation. Note that God didn’t create the “not good” directly; it is presented as a foreseeable but unintended outcome of good actions, and is soon remedied by the creation of Eve.

So everything is good, and the only “not good” is immediately remedied by God, and everything is good again.

God is love

The significance of everything being good is made apparent when we find out much, much later that God is love. The New Testament reveals that the nature of God is love itself, and God’s love for humanity is expressed in His desire to give us good things, the greatest good being communion with God in love.

Hence “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

The problem of evil

The problem is that despite the assurance of an all-powerful all-loving God, our experience of life contains many things that are not good.

Reading the news and talking to others, we hear about things that are even worse than “not good”, things that are tragic, horrific, and evil.

There may even be things in our own experience we can categorise as evil. But more broadly, anything “not good” comes under that category. As in Buddhism, life itself can seem “unsatisfactory” even if we achieve our goals and satisfy our desires.

The promise of mysticism

Mystics from different religious systems promise that we can experience true love, joy, or bliss in this lifetime. Various saints and mystics have said that they experience great love and joy despite the apparent suffering and evil in life.

They say we can experience this transcendent love, joy, bliss, peace, and so on, because it is the very nature of God, and God is, ultimately, all that exists.

The mystics grapple with paradox in trying to convey their answer to the problem of evil: if God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does he permit evil to exist?

For a mystic, the question has a slightly different angle: if God is love, and God is all, how can there be anything other than love in my experience?

This problem arises in every system of mysticism.

Troubleshooting my own experience

The fundamental question is not theological but pragmatic: why is my experience anything less than the love and joy described by the mystics?

But the pragmatic question is also theological: how is it possible for there to be anything but love and joy in my experience?

The Christian remedy is to love and know God. Non-Christian mysticism echoes the same, with varying emphasis on love or knowledge of the ultimate reality.

But this answer is not complete, because there remains in me something that resists or fails to embrace love and knowledge of God to the necessary degree.

A two-fold problem

So here it is: I need to know pragmatically why I am unable to fully and consistently embrace love and knowledge of God to such an extent that my experience is characterised by perfect love and complete joy.

At the same time this brings us back to the theological problem of how anything other than love and joy could exist in the first place. In other words, the problem of evil.

This is not just a Christian problem. Non-dualist systems like Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta struggle with the same fundamental issue. They posit that the nature of reality is non-dual – that the sense of separation between ourselves and God or the ultimate reality is false. But how does this sense of separation arise in the first place? What sustains it? How can “ignorance” or “nescience” or “delusion” exist if there is nothing but God?

Back to a Christian context: if God made everything good, why do human beings suffer?

I’m skirting around a whole lot of theology here, not because I want to avoid it, but because it faces the same problem from a different angle and I’d prefer to steer clear of the free will debate for now.

Knowledge of good and evil

The answer lies in the very mysterious tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Adam is commanded not to eat of the tree. The serpent tells Eve that if she eats of it she will become like God. God subsequently reiterates that implication…”The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”

But as we saw at the beginning of this post, evil has no positive existence. Evil is the absence of good. Everything in existence up to that point was good, because God himself created it.

So what evil is there to know? We might think this means “evil things” or “evil options” as if the tree gave Adam and Eve the ability to make malicious moral choices.

But in a universe where only good things existed and where an all-loving God is all-powerful, evil could only have theoretical significance.

Questions that should not be asked/how to ‘break’ a perfect machine

My old boss once told me that when he was at university the department still had old mechanical calculators. Apparently if you divide by zero on a mechanical calculator, it goes into an endless loop of calculation and has to be unplugged or switched off to stop it.

There’s nothing wrong with the machine. It isn’t broken. It’s not technically a design flaw. It’s just that when presented with the absurd or impossible command to divide by zero, the machine goes nuts.

But even thought it’s stuck, the machine is still not broken. If you could find a way to stop that calculation, it would be back to normal.

I think this provides an apt analogy for the knowledge of evil in the human mind. Evil is the absence of good, yet it takes on positive significance in our minds.

What I think happened, what Genesis signifies, is that in the fullness of love and communion with God, Adam and Eve entertained the idea of God’s opposite – God’s absence – and the corresponding absence of love, of goodness, of joy.

Maybe God is capable of knowing his absence, but human beings are not God. We aren’t (obviously) sustained by our own nature, but depend instead on God for our existence. God cannot help but be God, but humans could cease to exist at any moment.

An absurd idea

The idea of evil is absurd.

Yet when we entertain this absurd idea, our peace and joy are shattered, our love falters, and like the machine, we go a little nuts.

Our suffering in life, our failure to embrace love and knowledge of God, is due to entertaining this absurd idea: the idea of not-love.

If you spend enough time examining your own psyche, you will find that all fear and sorrow stems from this idea that the love and joy we desire are or will become absent. At the most basic level we are all afraid of the deprivation of love – the idea of “not-love” as a real or potential threat to our happiness and our existence.

In this sense, the more conventional Christian narrative still holds true: our faith in God is insufficient, because we continue to entertain the possibility that his love is not enough, will not come through for us.

We continue, despite the promises of the Gospel, to fear the spectre of God’s absence or insufficiency.

We’re like a young child secretly worried that his parents will abandon him. And as parents we think we should be able to reassure the child that this will never happen; yet the child himself must see that his own fear is not an unlikely or improbable outcome, but an absurdity, a mistaken conclusion that entirely missed the mark.

Light and shadow

God is often described as light. Evil is appropriately compared to darkness.

In this context, our fundamental error is akin to turning your back on the source of the light, and being terrified by your own shadow.

The shadow has no positive existence in the light. It doesn’t even exist. Yet if we mistake it for a real substance, we might imagine it could swallow us whole and we would never see the light again.

But as John wrote: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

The answer therefore is to recognise the absurdity of the idea of God’s absence. God himself could never doubt his existence or his power or his love, and so for us the corresponding answer is faith in love while refusing to entertain the idea of “not-love”.

In practice this means that any negative emotion such as fear, sorrow, anger, and so on, must have the delusion of “not-love” at its core. You might feel hurt that someone ignores or neglects you, but this hurt only has power because of your belief in “not-love”.

You might be angry at some perceived injustice to you, but this anger, and the fear and sorrow behind it can ultimately be traced back to this belief in the idea of “not-love”.

If you ceased to entertain the idea of “not-love” then there would only be love remaining.

“God is love; whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him.”

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My next book, smoked pork, fan-mail and all-consuming inner turmoil

I haven’t posted in a while, sorry about that.

But it doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy.

My diet book is almost complete. I’m looking forward to publishing it very soon.

Yesterday I perfected my cold-smoker, and spent half the day smoking some cured pork.

Earlier in the week I had my first ever fan-mail for my novel, from a family in Canada!!!

But the bulk of my attention has been caught up in what I can only describe as deep inner turmoil.

I’d been posting recently about my eyesight – nearsightedness – and how I was exploring the causes and the limitations of it in the same way that I had previously overcome my autoimmune disease.

Well, I probably should have mentioned that taking on such a long-standing physical problem and looking for the corresponding beliefs, emotions, and stresses in one’s psyche is bound to have a big impact on your life.

How big?

I developed myopia in primary school. I’ve been wearing glasses for more than twenty years. Whatever associations, fears, or maladaptive mechanisms go with my nearsightedness are well-established and deeply ingrained.

You can’t start tearing up your deepest foundational beliefs and worldview after twenty years and expect it not to shake your whole experience of life in unanticipated ways.

So that’s what’s been going on. It turned out that the spiritual significance of how one literally sees the world has profound implications, and I’m nowhere near the end of them.

How do you see the world? Is it a good place or a bad place? Is it ruled by love or by fear? Do bad things always happen to you? Do you always expect disappointment? Is your entire experience overshadowed by the inevitability of suffering?

Are you a victim? What laws of life do you take as indomitable?

Delving into these questions with a serious intent to change your life, with the sincere faith that something like nearsightedness has a significance and a purpose and is not set in stone…That process will throw your whole world into turmoil.

That’s why you need faith and perseverance, because the rewards on the other side are truly immeasurable. When things you’ve taken for granted all your life can change in a moment – that’s miraculous.

When the fears you’ve harboured in the back of your mind are completely uprooted, your entire experience is transformed and liberated.

The past week or so has contained some of the worst moments I can remember. But by persevering in faith and honesty and a determination to arrive at the truth no matter what, those dark and painful moments have given way to an experience of love and connection in my relationships and in own self that I would never have thought possible.

I realise that’s a bit scant on details, but it’s too personal to share. My actual vision is still a work-in-progress. I’m wearing my glasses only for brief periods when driving and occasionally for TV or the computer, but I notice now that my eyes hurt from wearing them.

Without glasses, my vision actually fluctuates constantly. Sometimes it seems quite clear, but at other times it seems blurrier than ever. Like the pain from my old autoimmune problem, what seems static is actually in a constant flux.

But examining my eyesight has taken me to the very heart of my relationship with external reality, my foundational sense of being a self in and against the world. That’s why challenging this foundation has had such far-reaching consequences.

When suffering is good for you

Suffering is a key theme of all religious traditions. They tend to treat suffering as something inevitable, but not intrinsic. That is, we all suffer, but only because something has gone wrong in us, the world, or reality itself.

Christianity and Buddhism (and everything in between) attest that true peace and contentment cannot be found in worldly things, or in the satisfaction of our desires.  From a religious point of view, we are all suffering whether we realise it or not. The first step is to realise it.

But it is possible, with sufficient wealth and self-delusion, to distract ourselves from suffering. We can run headlong into distractions – career, relationships, experiences, whatever will feed our pride and fill us with the promise of self-sufficiency.

We can let suffering feel like our opponent in the private drama of achieving success, personal validation, vindication, of finally making it. We can attribute our suffering to not being busy enough, or rich enough, on not having enough holidays, not having the right friends, not having the right distractions.

But these efforts will only intensify our suffering in the long-run. They will turn us into the kind of person who doesn’t know how to suffer, or more importantly, doesn’t know how to let go of the roots of suffering.

Because the roots of suffering lie in our false sense of autonomy, our desire to be in control. At the deepest level of our being there is no “me” to exercise this control, there is no interior agent behind our choices and decisions. Our efforts to feel in control are vain in light of the actual causes and determinants of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

The mind is very powerful.

It creates an impression of our reality – both the external and internal components. It also makes decisions in accordance with the reality it creates.

But the mind makes these decisions automatically. It weighs the evidence, arrives at a judgment, and thus the decision is made.

It does not require there to be a further arbiter of these decisions, yet we nonetheless have the strong impression that there is a “me” who guides these judgments and makes these decisions.

This is the crux of the problem: the mind creates all our impressions, yet we have an impression of a self, a “me”, who controls the mind. This means that the mind feels bound and controlled by the very impressions it has created.

The mind treats this impression of a self as if it is an actual self. It treats it with care. Like a spoiled child it caters to its whims. It factors this impression of a self into its decision-making so that its decisions are consistent with the illusion of this self being in control.

It creates a center where none exists, and then acts as though that center is vulnerable yet powerful, in control yet susceptible to losing control.

This is the delusion of self that the mind suffers – a delusion the mind itself has created. This is likewise the sin of pride, the root of all sin that seeks to make us the authors of our own glory.

As Isaiah wrote:

You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?

But what makes pride so difficult to be rid of, and enlightenment so hard to achieve, is that this delusion of a self persists even when we seek to let go of it.

That is why Christianity invokes grace so strongly – the free gift of holiness and redemption that comes from God in spite of our own efforts. If it came via our efforts it would only increase our pride.

Likewise, the point of enlightenment in Buddhism is that there is no enlightenment once the delusion of an agent, a self who is in control, is erased.

But the mind does exist. And there is, in essence, no difference between the deluded mind and the enlightened mind. It’s the same mind all along.

That’s why suffering can be a gift, when it encourages the mind to stop investing in the false impression of a self. Suffering is, after all, something that makes sense only in the context of a self who suffers, desires, strives and fails.

Blessed are those who mourn

Is your self-control making you happy or making you miserable?

If you’re fortunate, it will be making you miserable. I think that’s the meaning of “Blessed are those who mourn”, because it’s the mourners who find comfort.

In English, to comfort originally meant to be strengthened or made strong.

The Greek is from parakaleó which breaks down into call (kaleo) from close beside (para). The word itself has a variety of meanings: ask, beg, implore, plead, as well as comfort, urge, and exhort.

If you aren’t mourning, you can’t be comforted.

Another reference that comes to mind is the difficulty of the rich in entering heaven.

Why should it be difficult for the rich to enter heaven? Because their wealth lends them temporal power and makes them more liable to fall into the illusion of self-sufficiency.

Riches aren’t the problem – it’s the illusion of self-sufficiency, rich or poor, that blinds us to our absolute dependence on God.

As in Buddhism, I think the message is that it is better to mourn – to openly suffer and find no comfort in the world – because whatever comfort and happiness we do attain in a state of pride and illusory self-sufficiency is doomed to fail.

Likewise the poor in spirit. As one commentary puts it:

Here the blessedness is that of those who, whatever their outward state may be, are in their inward life as those who feel that they have nothing of their own, must be receivers before they give, must be dependent on another’s bounty, and be, as it were, the “bedesmen” of the great King.

A bedesman or beadsman was someone who lived on a noble’s alms in exchange for praying for their master’s soul.

One explanation is that “bead” means prayer. The other explanation is that “bede” comes from the Old English for “bid, bidding”. The point might be moot anyhow, since prayer and bid share a common root. But the “bedesman” definition is more fitting in the quotation above, since it implies total dependence on the King, and readiness to do his bidding.

The love of suffering

Something strange crops up if you read the works of various Christian mystics. They start talking about the joy they find in suffering, and even their growing desire to suffer.

But it makes sense if you consider our capacity as human beings to adjust to drastic changes in circumstance.

I once heard of a study that examined people’s self-reported happiness before and after major positive and negative events. I’m sure the story has been distorted, since the study design is either implausible or horrendously unethical, as you’ll see.

The story I heard was that researchers examined the happiness levels of people who had suffered the loss of a limb, and another group who had won substantial sums of money.

The point was that regardless of the event, within a number of months both groups had returned to their previous levels of happiness.

The story might not be true, but the central claim is something we’ve all witnessed in our own lives and in the lives of others. When the unthinkably bad or unimaginably wonderful occurs, we adapt to it sooner than we would ever expect from the outset.

Our minds excel at papering over existential crises. They also struggle to accept radical discontinuities in our life story.

Whatever your ‘set-point’ of happiness is, chances are you’ll return to that set-point over time. It would take a truly deep, meaningful, and enduring change to make a lasting impression, for better or for worse.

That’s why these saints and mystics want to keep suffering. Suffering prevents their sense of self-sufficiency, their self-conceit, from papering over the cracks once more.

And there’s an inevitability to suffering that gives it primacy over joy. I mean, we could go in the other direction – desiring impenetrable success and self-confidence, wanting to not only paper over the cracks but fill them in and concrete over the whole messy thing.

But it will fail eventually, one way or another. We are all going to die, so why strive to build our happiness on things that will fall apart before the end…not to mention what might come after the end.

There’s another reference: the wise man who builds on rock versus the fool who builds on sand.

We are exhorted to “store up treasure in heaven”, which to my mind implies learning to love God and letting go of the illusion of self-control.

Suffering helps us do that, because the part of us that suffers the most is the part we need to let go of.

Spiritual pride

Our pride is not easily defeated.

Maybe you’re fortunate, and your suffering, your natural poverty of spirit has helped you to see through delusions of self-sufficiency.

But when those who mourn are comforted, they might stop mourning. They might start thinking they understand how it all works. They might begin to feel in control, to feel self-sufficient, albeit in a spiritual rather than a worldly sense.

With spiritual pride the rules don’t change: the solution is still to recognise that we are not in control, or that the self who feels like it is in control is an illusion.

The difference is that whereas this realisation first came as a relief – a comfort against the struggle and suffering in life – now that we have found a measure of spiritual pride it comes as a thief in the night, threatening to take away what feels like a great success, the fruit of our spiritual efforts and understanding.

I think this is the general rule: those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. The freedom that comes with grace is a joy and relief when we are burdened and weighed down by suffering. But it is a threat and accompanied by fear when we already feel on top of the world, in charge of our lives.

And when that sense of being in control is spiritual pride, the prospect of being humbled is even more fearsome and confusing because it threatens to shake our spiritual foundation.

That’s why a recurring theme of mysticism is the principle of reversion: within the polar opposites of light and dark, joy and suffering, fullness and emptiness,  we should emulate the divine by embracing the lower half:

The Way itself is thus described in terms of “lower” qualities that actually encompass their opposites (“empty yet full”), and the best advice is to emulate the Way and hold fast to the conventionally lower element of the dyad. Once one is able to accomplish this, both sides of the dyad will be obtained.

The principle of reversion never ends. God never ceases to lower Himself, why should we?

When you grapple with a problem

In the previous post on sickness and pride I suggested that we should view our frustration with the common cold as pointing to the deeper problem of our pride, or the illusion of a self that is in control.

This false sense of control and the often accompanying sense of frustration is everywhere in life. But it is usually at its worst when we face obstacles and challenges, when we are struggling and feel like life is not unfolding as we’d like it to.

That’s why suffering has special value in religious traditions – when things are going well for us our pride and illusion of self are unassailable. It takes inevitable suffering and disappointment to reveal the sharp edges of these faults.

So we can treat all problems as we may treat the cold: recognise the struggle, the sense of control, and the frustration as illusory. The impression of a self at the center of these feelings is just an impression, not an actual self, so our suffering and struggle can become perfect reminders that we are in the grip of delusion and pride.

A moment of change occurs, in which we see through the illusion, if only briefly.

With this change comes the recognition that it was not brought about through “my” efforts, because the me who feels responsible for those efforts has temporarily vanished.

When it vanishes, so do the problems and the struggles that hitherto seemed so distressing.

I think this is the secret to the Daoist concept of wu wei – acting without acting:

The way never acts, yet nothing is left undone.
Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it,
The myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord.
After they are transformed, should desire raise its head,
I shall press it down with the weight of the nameless uncarved block.
The nameless uncarved block
Is but freedom from desire,
And if I cease to desire and remain still,
The empire will be at peace of its own accord.

Acting without acting is another way of saying that the illusion of a self who is in control becomes transparent.

The illusion of a self who is in control is like thinking that you can manipulate the weather with your thoughts. If you really believed that, your life would be full of pointless struggle and frustration, illusory successes and inevitable failures.

But then there’s the paradox once more: that whether you believe it or not is also something not under the control of an illusory self.

Nonetheless, this insight can unfold throughout your life. Maybe it happens suddenly for some. For me it is unfolding slowly, one area of life at a time as I seem to remember or realise that it is applicable in this aspect of life or in that struggle also.

Who is in control?

Yesterday a friend showed me Lamentations 3, and its relevance to my current project amazed me. :

He has driven me away and made me walk
    in darkness rather than light;
 indeed, he has turned his hand against me
    again and again, all day long…

The chapter is ruthless, full of broken teeth, mangled bodies, bitterness and mockery. And it is God who inflicts all this on Jeremiah. When did you last hear that God has “made me walk in darkness rather than light”? It doesn’t sound right, as though all the meanings are inverted. It’s as if someone set out to write the opposite of “the Lord is my shepherd”.

But then it changes:

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

Now this is hardly a reassuring message at first glance. It’s as if he’s saying “God beat me to a bloody pulp, but at least he didn’t kill me!” But to me it has a different significance. To me it says that God is in control of everything, and even in the darkest moments of suffering and despair, God is still in control.

This isn’t meant to be soothing or inspirational – it’s radical and transformative. We think we are in control, and that God is this thing or this guy who wants to help us, and if we’re really good or really repentant or practice talking to him often enough then things will start to go our way. And if things don’t go our way, it’s just because we haven’t tried hard enough, or we don’t really believe, or we’re being tested, or we’re not truly penitent.

What’s really going on is that God is in control. Not just in some abstract or distant way, but deeper than our own sense of pride and agency would have us know. “Without Me you can do nothing,” and that’s putting it mildly.

In technical terms, here’s how Aquinas states it:

God moves man to act, not only by proposing the appetible to the senses, or by effecting a change in his body, but also by moving the will itself; because every movement either of the will or of nature, proceeds from God as the First Mover. And just as it is not incompatible with nature that the natural movement be from God as the First Mover, inasmuch as nature is an instrument of God moving it: so it is not contrary to the essence of a voluntary act, that it proceed from God, inasmuch as the will is moved by God.

To say that you have free will does not mean you are like God. You are not able to control yourself, secure your own salvation, or even practice virtue independent of God’s will. Any movement of your will is dependent on God’s will.

The impression that you are thinking and acting and willing independent of God’s will is the illusion we call ‘Pride’. The impression that the buck stops with you is false, and both the cause and symptom of sin and suffering.

God is in control, absolutely. What makes Lamentations 3 so striking is that Jeremiah recognises God’s control, and ascribes to God responsibility for his suffering. He doesn’t succumb to the illusion that God is not in control.

This is radical, but it is also very mysterious. It means that in our sin and ignorance, in the midst of this illusion of self-sufficiency and control, God is nonetheless still in control.

So why do we suffer? Why undergo this whole bewildering drama and illusion if God could stop it right away?

This question has occupied theologians and philosophers for millennia. There are complex and nuanced answers that are beyond the scope of this post, but the bottom line is that God is in complete control, there is a purpose to it all, and that purpose is most definitely a mystery. As Julian of Norwich wrote after a vision:

“Sin is behovely (useful or necessary), but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,”

Taking what is offered.

Lately I’ve been reading about “acceptance” as a spiritual practice.

To accept means to take what is offered.

Acceptance as a spiritual practice is about taking life as something offered, especially the parts of life we usually reject, deny, ignore, or struggle against.

The Old Testament begins with the story of the origins of human suffering.

In this story, human beings once existed in a world that was entirely good.

Eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil opened the first humans’ eyes to good and evil, ruptured their relationship with God and brought about suffering and death.

The orthodox interpretation is simple: human life and happiness lies in union with God. Yet the first humans ate from the tree against God’s explicit command. Regardless of the precise significance of the tree itself, the act of disobedience was enough to break the relationship with God and introduce suffering and death into human experience.

Obedience comes from the Latin obedire which literally means to listen, or to hear. It is fitting in this context that humanity fell from the paradise of communion with God because they ceased to listen to God and instead sought to be “like God” in their own right, through knowledge of good and evil.

Nor does the story say that they were wrong. They did become “like God”, and their eyes were opened to good and evil.

In our own experience, knowledge of good and evil doesn’t refer to an objective, theoretical understanding, but to an immediate, practical and subjective sense of what is good and bad for us. We see the world in terms of our own personal profit and loss.

One interpretation of the death and resurrection of Christ is as the ultimate sign of how we can return to paradise – through a reversal of the fall.

The crucifixion that formed the central motif of Christianity for millennia denotes an act of faithful acceptance of suffering and death in direct opposition to the knowledge of good and evil that otherwise rules our lives.

In anticipation of his death, Christ’s words encapsulate the answer to the fall:

Going a little farther, He fell facedown and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.”

Christ’s crucifixion and death is presented as the ultimate atonement on behalf of all humanity. Atone is a contraction of “at one”, its literal meaning is the same as union or communion.

The union of God and humanity was broken by the human pursuit of knowledge of good and evil. The path to re-union is indicated by Christ’s acceptance of God’s will for him. As the quotation above demonstrates, the answer to the fall is to accept God’s will in spite of our sorrow and suffering. Knowledge of good and evil is thus not extinguished or abandoned. It is still there, just as the tree of knowledge stood in the garden both before the fall and after. But putting the will of God ahead of the knowledge of good and evil means we no longer eat the fruit of that tree.

The way of the cross is the return to paradise, as Genesis tells us:

“at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.”

The way to paradise is guarded by a flaming sword, just as the way to eternal life is found through death on a cross. The way to the tree of life looks like death. In losing our life, we save it. We can’t return to the garden without passing through the fire.

What does all of this have to do with acceptance?

Acceptance means to willingly take what is offered, and if we apply it to the sufferings and struggles in life it implies not only that we willingly take them, but that we regard them as something offered.

Eden is not a literal garden; the paradise consists in union with God. This union cannot be attained if we adhere to our own subjective sense of what is good and bad for us. Acceptance of the life we are given does not mean pretending that everything is good. It means that we align our will with something greater than our own sense of good and evil, profit and loss.

That is the choice before us. If we adhere to our sense of good and evil we will continue to pursue a self-interest dictated by fear and desire, struggling against the reality before us. If we accept reality in spite of our fears and desires, then we are accepting the life that is offered us right now by God.

Maybe your first thought is “well God can keep that reality, I don’t want it”. But that’s pretty much the point here. Acceptance is a different state from our usual play of good and evil.

If you think it would be pretty bad to accept parts of your reality, then you’re operating from the knowledge of good and evil. If you think you can try accepting this bad reality just to see if it changes into a good reality, then you’re still operating from the knowledge of good and evil.

That’s why accepting reality is so hard. It’s hard because it transcends our usual measures of good and evil. It takes us to a place we almost never visit, a place where we are no longer ruled and burdened by obsessive self-interest.

But let me tell you again that it is hard. Really, really hard.

 

MBTI and the melancholic

Utilising Keirsey’s temperament sorter, we can associate the four temperaments with four groupings of the Myers-Briggs 16 types. This leaves us with four variants of the melancholic temperant, the ‘NF’ types, which for the uninitiated means types who perceive intuitively (N) and arrive at judgements based on feeling (F).

Melancholics are therefore Keirsey’s Idealist types. Idealism is key to the melancholic temperament hence my use of the term melancholic idealist.  In MBTI terms the melancholic idealist is characterised by his dependence on intuition and feeling, with variations according to which function is extroverted, and whether the individual himself is introverted or extroverted.

For example, for NFP types the perceiving function (intuition) is extroverted – directed to the external world. For NFJ types the judging function (feeling) is extroverted. But even so an NFP or an NFJ may be Extroverted or Introverted, which is to say that they will be more closely attuned to their Extroverted or Introverted functions respectively.

What does this look like?

An ENFP and an INFP have the same arrangement of functions – introverted feeling (written as Fi) and extroverted intuition (Ne). But because the ENFP is overall an extrovert, their Ne plays the dominant role in their type. As introverts INFP types are dominated by their Fi.

As an INFP I find some benefit in the description of these functions and this type. For example, it is true that my life is dominated by Feeling. Not other people’s feelings, but my own, hence the ‘i’ for introversion. Having introverted Feeling as one’s dominant function is a bit like living in a house with no roof where you can’t help but be forever conscious of the weather, of which way the wind is blowing.

Extroverted intuition is like having odd or unusual patterns, resemblances, and associations constantly springing into one’s mind.  It’s partly reflected in my love of analogies, though the analogies can become stretched and strained beyond their use.

But as an INFP I can only take this kind of Myers-Briggs talk in small doses. MBTI is, after all, a very Te way of looking at things, that is, an extroverted Thinking approach, cutting up all of humanity into 16 interchangeable boxes.

Extroverted Thinking does not come naturally to me, though I can use it when motivated, when it serves some higher aim, and in fact have become so good at it that on tests my Thinking and Feeling scores vary by only a few points.

But beyond the narrow limits of extreme utility, I find Te tedious, boring, soul-destroying even; and hence I soon grow tired of reading Myers-Briggs material.

In addition, for some reason the MBTI or Keirsey’s interpretation give the impression that the melancholic idealist might find answers, understanding, and hence fulfillment. Perhaps this is implicit in its systematic Te design?

Whatever the reason, reading MBTI stuff leaves me Feeling like I’m on the verge of a discovery: if I just try a little bit harder I’ll surely break through and get the answers I so desire.

Unfortunately, this is precisely the dynamic that so dogs and distresses the melancholic idealist, and we should be wary of things that feed our idealism by offering the appearance of final answers.

This is what I love so much about the four temperaments theory and its depiction of the melancholic. As Conrad Hock writes, the melancholic must learn to love suffering, because the reality will always fall short of his ideals. Or to put it another way, we long for a perfection and a finality that cannot be met in this world.

I think this is especially harmful for the INFP whose judging function and overall orientation are so introverted and subjective. The INFP is especially prone to a kind of idealistic inflation where ideas of perfection can become ever more tantalising yet ever more elusive at the same time.

The melancholic benefits from understanding that idealism will never be wholly satisfied in this life, and a certain degree of suffering or dissatisfaction will always accompany us.

The paradox is that if we accept suffering and indeed learn to love it, we may find ourselves far happier than if we embrace an ideal devoid of suffering. I think this is why spiritual principles of inversion are especially suited to the melancholic: He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. Or the Daoist passages I’ve often quoted:

What is most perfect seems to have something missing;
Yet its use is unimpaired.
What is most full seems empty;
Yet its use will never fail.
What is most straight seems crooked;
The greatest skill seems like clumsiness,
The greatest eloquence like stuttering.
Movement overcomes cold;
But staying still overcomes heat.
So he by his limpid calm
Puts right everything under heaven.

Thus the melancholic description – unlike the MBTI – describes the plight of the melancholic idealist in its entirety and offers a solution, perhaps the only real solution, which is to make the melancholic entirely aware of his own plight and to transcend it. The melancholic can thus idealise the non-ideal and find a kind of peace in a humble perfection.

This is not what some people might call “being realistic” or accepting imperfections, or being pragmatic. It does not drag the idealist “into the real world” but draws the real world up into the rarefied atmosphere of the ideal.  It reconciles “heaven” and “earth” but like the cross, what seems like the destruction of the former turns out to be the sanctification of the latter.

My passive self

A sociology PhD candidate and fellow blogger whom I follow has written a couple of posts on the definition of ‘passion’ and its contemporary significance.

The etymology of passion is one of my favourite examples of how our culture has lost or forgotten its ancient bearings. We generally encounter passion as ‘excitement’ or ‘enthusiasm’ or strong emotion. Only in the arcane religious context of “the passion of the Christ” do we catch a glimpse of the full context of the original word.

In brief, the strands of Greek philosophy that were retained through Christendom and thereby shaped the modern world observed a dichotomy of activity and passivity in things. To use a rough example: when fire heats water, the fire is active and the water is passive. That is, the fire causes change while the water undergoes change. Heating is, in this sense, an action of fire and a passion of water.

In a human context, passions are what we now tend to call emotions, yet the word ’emotion’ is comparatively recent and carries the original meaning of ‘stir up’. By contrast, passion originally meant ‘to suffer’, yet suffering in turn does not refer only to painful or harmful changes, but to changes generally, or rather to things ‘undergone’.

Our emotions are changes wrought in us by external circumstances, objects, and considerations, as well as our own thoughts and ideas about such considerations. We are ‘passive’ in regard to our emotions insofar as they are changes ‘undergone’ by us.

In contemporary language people say things like “I’m passionate about the environment” to signify that they care enough about such issues as to undergo emotional changes in response to them. The original meaning of passivity is implicit here. But the meaning is entirely lost when the language shifts and people say things like “I guess the environment is my biggest passion”.

Does the original meaning matter? Apart from being able to understand that “the passion of the Christ” refers to his suffering and undergoing change rather than Christ being really enthusiastic about dying on a cross, there are also aspects of ancient anthropology or psychology that have informed our present civilisation and still make sense if we take the time to unravel the knots and tangles that our culture has made of them.

For example, various schools of Greek philosophy valued reason to such an extent that it took on divine or transcendent qualities. Yet, like the classical theistic understanding of God, reason is not passive.  Reason does not undergo change through the influence of other entities or forces. Understanding both reason and/or God as perfect, as beyond change or growth or the fulfillment of potential, this perfection is in some sense available to humanity insofar as we can embody reason in our own souls.

Yet as experience attests, our adherence to reason is challenged most significantly by the passions and the power they exert over us.  Depending on the particular philosophy, humans were viewed as enslaved by the passions through the lower appetite, or enslaved by the passions through the influence of false and irrational beliefs. A rational and virtuous man is not controlled by external objects, and not susceptible to the demands of his passionate nature.

In this sense, the passion of the Christ is significant not because a God-man went through some painful experiences, but because it is (or should be) metaphysically impossible for God to suffer in the first place.  This is, I think, a good example of how even a middling knowledge of metaphysics underscores the significance of Christian doctrine in a classical theistic context.

Or to put it another way:

“ the humble is the stem upon which the mighty grows, the low is the foundation upon which the high is laid.”

 

 

 

 

Terrifying moral dilemmas

A regular interlocutor and occasional sparring partner over at MercatorNet asked for my opinion as an ethicist on a difficult moral dilemma: should couples who are, or suspect they are, genetically predisposed to terminal illness or other serious disease avoid having children?

For me these questions hit close to home. It is not difficult to imagine having children with serious illnesses or disabilities, though it is undoubtedly more salient for people who have witnessed and experienced the same in their families for generations.

Difficult cases such as these seem overwhelming when considered in isolation. It does indeed appear prudent and reasonable to avoid having children in order to avoid certain or highly probable disease.

However, ethics forces us to think not only of the outcomes, but of the principles behind an action. This is reasonable in part because our ability to assess outcomes is heavily constrained. For example, how do we correctly weigh the value of a life lived for thirty years, cut short by illness?
Even in a strictly consequentialist sense, we are not equipped to predict what medical advances or discoveries may come in the future.

In terms of the principles behind the action: at first glance, simply avoiding having children does not appear to be as bad as, say, actively killing people in order to root out genetic faults or variables either in utero or in vitro. The harm done is not to the non-existent offspring (assuming non-abortifacient contraceptive methods or alternatively NFP methods).

The harm done is to the marriage, and to the otherwise-would-be parents themselves. The nature of the harm or error is multifaceted and not obvious. It ranges from the simple harm of missing out on the fulfillment and enrichment that offspring provide, to the perhaps more ‘existential’ harm of adopting a worldview in which one is able and morally required to act with certitude and control in regard to circumstances and outcomes that are generally speaking beyond both our knowledge and our true control.

However, this last point broaches on terrain typically regarded as ‘religious’ and not encouraged in public debate. But I would say nonetheless that if the purpose of life is to avoid suffering and delay death, then perhaps such actions are a noble sacrifice. But if the purpose of our life is more than that, or better yet, the context of our life is broader than suffering and death, then we may have hope that such painful moral dilemmas are not as closed and complete as they appear.

I think the melancholic temperament is well-suited to ethics because it searches always for the principle or ideal behind an action. Melancholics are not good with ‘exceptional circumstances’ or arbitrary redrawing of boundaries. If we decide as a society that it would be wrong for children with certain disabilities to not be born, then an ethicist should (quite rightly) start to look for the operative principle behind such a conclusion.

The melancholics are, I think, merely more sensitive than most to the principles that exert constant albeit imperfect influence on all humans. That is why the eugenic fantasies may begin on ‘safe’ territory with the killing of severely disabled infants or the execution of the very worst serial criminals, but they tend to end with the elimination of those unlikely to achieve good university GPAs, and the culling of people with minor impulses toward rebellion or unconventional behaviour.