Christianity, Islam, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

End of the series/back to work

I have to get back focused on other things now, so no more posts from me.  If anyone found the prior posts useful and would like to see the rest, you can read it for free in the kindle library , or if you like paper I published at the minimum allowed price. Especially in these times, when so many people seem to be citing God as the sponsor of hatred and violence, I think it is important to counter the nonsense that confuses people into accepting that sort of thing, and bring all of what Mohammed called “the People of the Book”, his approving term for anyone who followed an uncorrupted version of  Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, back to an understanding of God as a loving being who gives us all what we need generously and freely if we will only take the time and focus to find it, asking nothing in return, but who cannot force us to be good. We must each work to learn to feel pleasure in doing the right thing, which is to do good for all God’s creatures and to participate in the love that is God. The message is simple. It only needs a book full of explanations because people have been so determined to complicate it and distort it to serve their own ends.

Love and peace to all.

 

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Christianity, regligious education, Uncategorized

Christ’s Death for Our Sins – His Humanity Displayed His Divinity

Why would the son of God be born as a mere flesh-and-blood human?  Why would he be permitted to be subjected to doubt and indignities, to torture and death? Why would a divine being ask God to take away the cup of poison, or cry out to God “why hast thou forsaken me”? Why would Christ, who must above all others have had no reason to fear death, have nonetheless been afraid (though undeterred) as the hour approached?

The answer lies again in the concepts of alignment with God and free will. If God spoke to each of us from a burning bush and told us to do X, Y, and Z or else suffer the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, most would comply, but we would do so out of fear, not out of true alignment with God. If Christ had been in the form of a shining, glorious divinity free from fears or temptations many people would have listened to him, but would not have understood his message.[1] It is all very well for a God to say how to behave, but how can mere mortal humans follow such a standard? God does not need faith, but we must depend upon it.

But Christ did not come as a shining divinity, or even as a perfect man.  He came as a man with perfect faith, not perfect certainty. He feared pain.  He suffered from humiliation. He feared death, and apparently even had doubts about what would actually happen when he died. He did not smile upon the cross and delight in the thought that he would shortly be back in heaven. Despite all this, he did not have doubts about what his own actions must be. He had faith that he must do what was demanded of him, whatever the consequences. It is only because he was so human, because he had human doubts and fears, that he could serve as an example to all of perfect love and faith. His example taught a lesson that mere humans could follow.  The apostles and other Christians did follow it. Many suffered humiliation, torture, and gruesome deaths. Yet, guided by the example of a human of perfect faith, they found near-perfect faith themselves. They chose to accept their unpleasant deaths over the alternative of abandoning their convictions.  They died knowing that they were doing the right thing, and that conviction was more than compensation for their sufferings. They did not need to be able to see exactly what lay beyond death’s curtain, for their faith was not dependent upon certainty of eternal reward – it was enough that they were certain that they could not be content doing less than standing up for their convictions, whatever the cost.

It is a part of Church doctrine, at least in some sects, that the Original Sin of Adam and Eve prevented humans from having access to salvation until the coming of Christ, and that Christ died for our sins in the sense that his death was somehow magically necessary to cleanse the stain of Original Sin from our souls. This seems like an unnecessary and unlikely construction.[2]  Why would God let the human race flounder along hopelessly until the death of Christ? If Christ’s death was needed to perform some sort of salvation spell, why wasn’t it arranged sooner? It makes far more sense to accept that Original Sin, in the sense of the ability to choose not to follow the path of alignment with God, as required by the concept of free will, placed all of us under a dangerous threat of failure, but not a condemnation of certain failure. Christ’s example of perfect faith served as a beacon to guide us out of danger. It came at a time and in a place where mankind was ready to hear, accept, and communicate the message, a message that was given to other people in other times by various prophets with varying degrees of success. Christ died so that our sins may be forgiven through our repenting of our sins in the light of his example, not because God was otherwise incapable of forgiving our sins if we were willing to repent. Mystifying the death of Christ serves only to obscure its true significance to us. Jesus proved to us all that each of us, mere humans all, with all of our fears and weaknesses, are capable of achieving perfect faith, as he was. We are all the children of God, and God has always loved his children.

 

[1] The Bible teaches that in the old days God was prone to demonstrate his presence and power with impressive miracles, yet people consistently went astray and started worshiping golden calves about eight minutes after the last such demonstration. Being impressed by power is not as effective as true understanding.

[2] Here I am flying directly against what most Christian sects teach, so I do not expect general agreement on this point. That does not matter, since the rest of what I write here does not depend on this point. However, my book is intended to help people who are struggling with the hard questions where the official doctrine does not seem to make sense, and on this point I can only say that I think the official doctrine has it wrong. Christ’s life and death are no less important for being less magical. News of this perfect example has spread across the planet and endured the centuries, leading millions and billions to salvation and freedom from deadly sin. The fact that Christ died so that our sins could be repented and forgiven by his divine example, an example given to us in a form that we can understand, is, in my view, more wonderful than the notion that Adam turned on a magical sin-switch and Christ turned it off again.

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Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Sin and Repentance – The Deadly Desires and Their Cure

Greed, envy, lust, wrath, gluttony, vanity – all are sins of Wanting, of non-virtuous desire.  Sloth is a sin of a somewhat different sort, one of lack of virtuous desire. By examining these we may understand more complex varieties of sin.

To understand sin we need only recall the above discussion of the nature of heaven and hell. Those who allow themselves to be preoccupied with material desires become incapable of experiencing the bliss of heaven, and instead fall into the self-feeding torment of insatiable Wanting. They actively follow a path to hell. Those who simply are too lazy to develop virtue, who waste their lives merely earning a living and finding amusements to fill the dreary hours of their lives, also fail to develop the ability to experience the bliss of heaven. They may not be punished by the gnawing hunger of Want that the more active sins involve, but still they do not achieve the bliss of virtue. Both types of sin, if engaged in to excess without repentance and reform, involve a choice on the sinner’s part not to follow the only path that leads to divine bliss, the path of developing alignment with God. It is for this reason that they are sins. Thus, sins are not arbitrary rules that God has set up just for fun. Rather, sin is something that inherently, in the nature of things, prevents the mind and soul from focusing on virtue.

It is important to understand that sin is not a matter of making God angry by breaking the rules. God does not look down upon a rich and greedy man and think “he must be punished for that after he dies”, any more than a good parent would decide to punish their child for something years after the fact, when the punishment couldn’t any longer be expected to help the child to improve her behavior and avoid future mistakes. God does not have the angels taking names of teenage boys who see an attractive girl and think about having sex with her. Sin is a disappointment to God, not an offense.  It is a disappointment because it is a distraction from the process of alignment with God. If the rich man remains so concerned with earning his next million that he cannot learn to find joy in taking time and wealth to help others, then he will fail to develop the habit of mind that leads to eternal bliss, and God will not be able to help him. If the teenager, after he grows up and his hormones calm down, still spends his days and nights looking for new and more extreme sexual gratification rather than finding true love and learning to regard sex as a way of giving pleasure and affection to his wife, then he will become increasingly obsessed with desires that cannot satisfy the soul. If a woman spends her whole life watching videos and staring at a computer screen to stave off boredom, she will never develop the ability to feel the joy and excitement that flows from love and virtue. God does not banish these people from heaven as a punishment for breaking the rules. They keep themselves from heaven by choosing paths that can only lead elsewhere.

This fact, that God does not become angry with us for sinning, but rather that we lead ourselves to unhappiness through sinning, makes it easier to understand the process of repentance and “forgiveness”. I have often heard people express puzzlement over the Catholic rite of confession. Their statements go something like: “Boy, Catholics have it good. You can be the worst person in the world, but if you confess it to the priest before you die and say a few Hail Marys it’s all okay.” In reality, confession and repentance are not that easy. Confession, for those who practice it, is not about revealing your sins to the priest. Rather, it is designed to force you to think about your actions and reveal your sins to yourself. Once you have reviewed your behavior and found your errors, the next step is to repent of the sins.

Repentance is not a matter of telling God that you are sorry. It is a matter of being sorry. Many parents will at some point have been through the following little drama. Brother hits sister, making her cry. Parent tells brother to say he is sorry, which he does. One minute later, brother hits sister again.  Upon seeing parent’s look of displeasure, brother voluntarily says “I’m sorry!”  Parent then explains to brother that just saying he is sorry isn’t enough, when obviously he wasn’t really sorry or he wouldn’t have done it again.  This same simple understanding of the true nature of repentance applies to all sin. True repentance involves thinking about the nature of the action, realizing that it is wrong, and developing an intention to avoid doing it again.  It is a process of moving away from sin and towards alignment with God.  Without this sort of repentance, no amount of confessing or apologizing will do any good. Likewise, if the sinner truly does repent of his action, if he truly is sorry for what he has done and has resolved to improve, then no particular act of repentance or granting of forgiveness by a priest or anyone else is required to heal the soul of the sinner. The rite of confession is merely an aid to true repentance.[1] Likewise, the acts of penance prescribed by the priest are not a form of reparations to God, but rather are a way to help lead the repentant sinner to further contemplate his error and strengthen his resolve to avoid repeating the sin. Unfortunately, too many people regard them as a form of payment for the sin, to be gotten out of the way before going and sinning some more, rather than taking the opportunity of the prayers to improve their resolve and make real progress in their alignment with God.

Can major sinners be redeemed? Yes, but it isn’t easy. It is hard to change a habit of mind. A person immersed in greed, lust, or vanity will have a very hard time getting away from those desires and finding pleasure in virtue. It is, however, possible, in the rare case that something happens to cause the sinner to make a real about face and realize the error of his ways.  Is it fair that such a person, if he successfully repents and reforms, should be able to achieve heaven, just as a person who has been good all her life can do? Yes, for two reasons. First, again the main reason why sins are sins is not because they involve breaking rules, but rather because they involve a distraction from virtue. A person can be immersed in greed or lust his whole life without necessarily ever harming anyone except himself, so if he then succeeds in seeing the error of his ways and turns around to pursue active virtue, why shouldn’t he achieve bliss? Secondly, to the extent that the sinner has harmed others in his career of sin, if he truly repents and reforms he will suffer in his own mind in proportion to the amount of harm he has caused.  If a wrathful person has gone about beating people up for years and does not greatly regret those actions, feeling real pain of heart for it, then he has not really repented and reformed. Thus, we should not think of the reformed sinner as going unpunished, for he will be punished in and through his own repentance. Indeed, if a formerly grievous sinner claims to have seen the light and adopts a serene and peaceful attitude, one may guess that his reform is far from thorough. Have you ever kicked yourself for days over some fairly minor insensitive or ill-conceived action of yours? Imagine how you would feel, as a normal good person, if you had committed the offenses of the grievous sinner; the truly reformed person will suffer at least that much from the arrows of his own conscience. Indeed, Dante envisioned purgatory, the afterlife waystation where some sects believe reformed sinners go before being admitted to heaven, as a place where the sinners rather gleefully jumped into searing fires of purification. Having truly repented, they are so aghast at their own sins that the pain of burning away the taint is a relative comfort. Don’t try this at home, of course, but Dante’s vision helps us to visualize how true repentance inherently pains the sinner in direct proportion to the degree to which others have suffered from his sins, which should satisfy our sense of fairness. Further, we can be assured that there is no way to get around this. Anyone who truly repents will feel that pain, and anyone who does not truly repent will not be saved.[2]

This brings us to the distinction between sin and crime. People have often been tempted to make all sins crimes, but the two things are different.  If a man steals a loaf of bread because it is the only way that he can feed his child, he has technically committed a crime but he has not committed a sin.  His action does not lead him away from the path of virtue, for he is risking punishment out of love and concern for his child. If consenting adults choose to spend their evenings in a sex club pursuing their sexual desires, they are committing a sin but not a crime. By feeding their wants they lead themselves away from the path of virtue, but they are not hurting other innocent people. If a person, on a sudden whim, shoots someone dead just to see what it feels like to kill someone, then he commits a terrible crime but not – by the act – such a terrible sin. Since the action itself was short and impulsive, it was not a great distraction. The terrible sin came earlier, in developing the depravity of mind that made the murderer so concerned with feeding his own desires that he considers the satisfaction of a whim of his own more important than the very life of another person. Sin is internal, a process of inflicting harm on one’s own mind and soul. Crime is external, a process of inflicting harm on others. Crime can be controlled by governments through punishing and locking up offenders, though they should bear in mind that virtuous people rarely intentionally hurt others, and that investments in stimulating virtue may thus be very effective in lessening crime. Sin, on the other hand, cannot be effectively controlled by putting offenders in prison, for such punishment is unlikely to cause the misguided sinner to reform his mind and soul. The concept of prison as a penitentiary was never notably successful.

Understanding that sin is, in essence, distraction from virtue can also help in understanding a class of actions that are, for want of a better term, “sin-like” without being in themselves something we would think of as bad.  Even the finest of emotions, such as the love of a parent for a child, can go wrong. The infamous Texas cheerleader mother is an example. She was obsessed with wanting her daughter to do well and get whatever she wanted.  This obsession grew to the point where she tried to hire someone to kill the mother of her daughter’s rival for a position on the high school cheerleading squad, in the hopes that the death of the mother would cause the rival to be depressed and drop out of contention. Clearly, trying to have someone murdered is a crime. The more interesting fact here, though, is that the normally good impulse of loving and wanting to help one’s daughter had been warped into a sin-like obsession that was itself a bad thing. As far as the press reports revealed, she had no hatred for the intended victim of the crime, but her obsessive devotion to her child’s wants had the same poisonous effects as sinful, seething hatred.

How can you tell when this line has been crossed? To find the answer, we should recall the principle of connectedness. All actions must be viewed in the context of our place in a world filled with other humans and animals.  Our devotion to ourselves, our families, and our friends must be evaluated in light of its effects on others. Charity begins at home, and it is right to spend extra effort looking after the people who, by virtue of being family or close friends, are your special responsibility. However, when serving the apparent interests of family and friends results in harm to others, the interests of everyone must be considered. God does not play favorites, and those who wish to align themselves with God must be willing to take that broader perspective. A mother who finds that she has great devotion to her child but no sympathy at all for other children has gone astray. A parent who fights for the unrestrained liberty of a child who has proven himself to be an incorrigible danger to other children has also gone astray; the parent should continue to love the child and try to help him reform, but should not fight for the child’s freedom to continue to harm others. We are all creatures of the world, and we must try to be good citizens of the world, promoting the web of good behavior that will help all of God’s children to have the best life possible.

If an act, viewed in isolation on the basis of its individual facts, would normally be seen as evil, then chances are that it is not any less so just because it is performed from a misguided surplus of family loyalty, patriotism, or religious fervor. Using a bomb to blow up a person on the street who has committed no particular offense is evil, even if that person happens to be a member of a religious group that has tended to treat the perpetrator’s religious group unfairly. The religious tribalism that underlies the act is sinful, and has taken the place of real religious devotion. A soldier who intentionally injures a noncombatant citizen of the enemy country acts, at best, out of a sinful excess of anti-foreign hatred that has dispossessed the type of good patriotic pride that causes other soldiers to be careful always to act with honor, even at danger to themselves. People who act as an accomplice to a criminal boyfriend or girlfriend act out of a sinful obsession that masquerades as love. All such obsessions are just as harmful as conventional sin in preventing alignment with God.

[1] For avoidance of doubt, I am not suggesting that Catholics not bother with confession. To the contrary, my point is that they should take the process seriously, and that persons of other faiths without this rite should seek an equivalent means of repenting and steering away from their sins. Also, in fairness, Catholic doctrine would dispute that the rite is not strictly necessary, noting that Peter was delegated power to forgive or not forgive sins. However, I believe this is a matter of how one views the nature of the delegation. One cannot think that God intended to give Peter arbitrary power to deny forgiveness to a good and truly repentant person on a whim, so one must suppose that Christ’s meaning was “Peter, you understand how true repentance works – if you and your followers say someone’s sins are forgiven, it means that they have done what is needed to repent and cure the sin.” Similarly, though the church may not say this, I think most Catholics would be convinced that if a man dies alone after confessing and repenting of his sins in the presence of only God, it will still work. Priests are intended to be a help, not an impediment

[2] In my own unsupported opinion, I think this is the reason why Catholic doctrine really puts a strong emphasis on having a priest perform the Last Rites and grant forgiveness. Even a mundane sinner, upon having her mind focused by impending death, may feel such anguish over her relatively minor sins that her soul will be heavily disturbed not only despite but because of her true repentance. The priest may calm this disturbance and help the soul to depart in peace.

 

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Christianity, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Good Works – Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

Different Christian sects differ on the importance of doing good works in the process of salvation, but I believe this is due to a lack of common understanding as to the nature and purpose of good works. Can a person do good and charitable things throughout their life and still not achieve heavenly bliss? Yes. Can a person achieve heavenly bliss without doing good and charitable things? No. Good works are a symptom of faith, so that any person who has faith and virtue will do them, but good works are not in themselves virtue. It is possible, and indeed common, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

How can there be a wrong reason for doing a good act? Again, one must recall the nature of heavenly bliss and of faith. To achieve bliss you must have enough faith to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing, not because you expect any kind of reward. If I give hours each day and much of my earnings to charity because I will be fussed over and admired by other people, then I am acting like Contracting Connie. I will not be enjoying the acts themselves, but rather will be suffering through them in order to get an external reward from other people. The character of Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House, who devotes herself to prominent charitable causes while seriously neglecting her own children, is a notable example of this breed. If I give ten percent of my earnings to the church because a minister has told me that unless I do I will be cast into a lake of fire, then I am just trying to avoid punishment rather than receiving enjoyment from the knowledge that I have done a good thing. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is better than doing the wrong thing, but it will not lead to the ability to feel heavenly bliss. We must learn to feel enjoyment just because we have done a good thing, even if we receive no gratitude or admiration at all.

Should you encourage your children to do good works even if they don’t (at least at first) want to? Helping someone just to avoid being scolded by your parents is doing the right thing for the wrong reason, so a child cannot necessarily be expected to achieve virtue this way. However, being persuaded to do a good act can help the child to achieve real virtue by giving them a chance to experience the good feelings that flow from good actions, so that at some future opportunity they may be more inclined to do the good thing simply because it is good. The task for a parent, then, is to try to help the child to enjoy performing the good action. The child must understand why it is good, and should be helped to see the beneficial effects of the action on the person or animal that they are helping. The act should not be referred to as a “sacrifice”, but should be celebrated as an enjoyable activity (“wasn’t it nice to see how she cheered up when you helped her?”). Such little steps, though they may be initiated by the parent rather than by the child’s own desire to do good, can help to lead a child to the point where she no longer needs the parental prodding. Of course, if the parent performs good works and discusses the good feeling that they produce, the lesson will likely be more convincing than if the parent simply sends the child off to help a neighbor while the parent watches a football game.

Should a grownup force herself to go out and do good works? Perhaps, but just as with a child it should be done with a view to learning to do the right thing for the right reason. If you think back over the past year and discover that you have made very little effort to help others, then you should use your prayer time to examine your priorities and to seek the degree of faith that will enable you to want to spend time helping others. Then, forcing yourself to overcome your inertia by simply making up your mind that you are going to go and do some good deed will help you to put that faith into action. In this way, you will be doing the right thing for something pretty close to the right reason, and you will likely find that you rapidly begin to take real pleasure in doing good deeds. On the other hand, if you simply feel embarrassed because you feel that people expect you to be doing some good deeds, and so you look around for some easy ones to satisfy the obligation, you will be unlikely to progress in virtue. The key is to keep in mind the goal of doing virtuous actions for virtue’s sake, and of learning to draw pleasure from the act of doing good itself.[1]

Should adults be pressured by others to do good works? We need to be very careful here. Consider the effects of the typical American United Way campaign. Most Americans are generous, and unless they are desperately poor (and often even if they are desperately poor) they will seek to donate to worthy causes without prodding. Employers and organizations, though, like to boost their reputation in the community by harnessing the giving of their employees or members into a campaign in the organization’s name. If the company or organization does that the right way, it’s a great thing. They can make it easy for employees to give by payroll deduction, they can increase the power of giving by providing matching gifts, and they can make it easier to spend time on charitable works or provide funds for charitable endeavors. The problem comes when they have “100% participation” campaigns where employees are pressured to give. This taints the charitable impulses. Gifts that were freely and anonymously given just for the pleasure of giving now become an obligation where one’s name is checked off on a list. Similarly, celebrating givers, rather than celebrating gifts, can shift a selfless impulse into a selfish one, replacing simple joy in giving with pleasure in being recognized and admired for giving. Corruption is a subtle thing, and we must be ever-vigilant to keep it from undermining virtue.

[1] It is interesting to see, as I write this, that Word’s grammar check thinks that I am unlikely to mean “doing good”, but does not raise any question on the phrase “doing well”. Apparently we spend much more time discussing our competitive performance than we do discussing doing good works. That should not be true.

Conversations starters in the media – In addition to Bleak House, an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati called Jennifer and Johnny’s Charity does a nice job on this one. More generally, Buffy the Vampire Slayer does a great job of illustrating doing the right thing for the right reasons; our heroes get no thanks or respect from their peers and get in trouble with the adults, but do the right thing simply because it needs doing.

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Christianity, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Difficult Concepts Made Simple 8 – Baptism

Baptism

Baptism of infants (adult baptism will be discussed further below) is unusual among the vehicles of grace in that it does not involve action by the beneficiary, but rather an action performed for her by others. The baptized, usually a baby, is commonly washed with the water over her loud objections, with no conception of the significance of the sacrament. How does this work to convey grace?

To understand baptism, one must realize that since the baptized person is commonly not a conscious participant in the process, she must not herself be the means by which grace is transmitted. She is not like the participant in Holy Communion, who receives grace through the opening of his own mind and heart to the participation in the body of the faithful. Baptism operates, if at all, through the persons around her.

The function of baptism is to cleanse the taint of original sin. Adam’s sin of pride was that of learning to realize that he had a choice between doing the right thing or doing something else, and succumbing to the temptation to do something else. As I have already discussed, Adam’s fall was, paradoxically, also our salvation, for it was only through the development of the ability to choose to do wrong that we gained the virtuous ability to choose to do right instead. Nonetheless, the resulting responsibility to choose to do right was a new burden, the burden of sin, which falls upon us all as soon as we are old enough to realize that we can choose to do wrong.[1] It is this burden that baptism is intended to ease.

Clearly, baptism does not wipe out this burden of choice – we still face temptation after baptism. What does it do? It shows to the parents, godparents, and other concerned assembled that the baptized has, as of that moment, a clean slate. Any taint or temptation will arise as she goes forward through her life in the world. The parents, godparents, and congregation make a commitment to help her to find the path of virtue, to give her love and guidance. They take on a heavy responsibility, but it is a sweet burden, for they by their efforts can help to bring this new soul to joy. Baptism brings the child in from the dark and lonely desert where she must see and resist sin on her own, and brings her into the warmth and protection of her family and congregation, who will do their best to throw light upon the shadows of temptation and deception so that she may clearly see the way to bliss. Baptism is a grace to parents, godparents and child together, if it is properly received. It is the gift of a bond of responsibility, an opportunity to guide and a chance to be guided. The child receives this gift simply by virtue of her birth. The parents and godparents will have to work hard for the child, but if they are open to the grace they will perform this function willingly. The gift to them, the chance to experience the pleasure of helping the young innocent to find bliss, is given to them not based upon their past merit, but in trust of their willingness to do right in the future.

Again, though, the grace can only be given to willing recipients. If the parents and godparents fail to realize the significance of the charge they are given in having this clean soul delivered into their hands, they are unlikely to provide the support the child needs to begin life aright. Like any trust, the one formed at baptism can be violated, and the grace forming the trust can be squandered.

Adult baptism adds an additional element similar to confirmation. An adult who chooses to receive baptism is taking an intentional action to wash away not just the sin of Adam but the sins of his youth. Children make mistakes and may stray along misguided pathways. A person who properly receives the grace of adult baptism is making a choice to turn away from those errors and begin anew, again with family and community undertaking to help them. In sects that practice confirmation, the person having reached the age of independent decision likewise makes a firm choice to follow the ways of virtue with the support of family, sponsors, and church.  Christianity is not the only religion that has celebrated the concept of washing away sin with water.[2] It is an ancient notion, but I believe that every religion that followed this practice rejected the idea that sin could simply be washed away like dirt by an unrepentant person. The practitioner must have the correct intention, viewing the washing as the physical sign of a spiritual process in which they reject sin and seek purity of heart. Those who undertake these processes thoughtfully and sincerely, not as empty rituals, receive grace through them. The person must recognize that he bears Adam’s burden, the free ability to choose his own destiny. He must use the knowledge he has acquired through the teachings of others and through his own experience and prayer to recognize that he will be subject to temptations to stray, and he must make a real choice to follow a path that will avoid falling into the pit of those temptations. If he makes that choice, he will receive the grace he needs to succeed. If he rejects that grace and merely goes through the motions, he will receive what inevitably follows. Decisions have consequences.

[1] Any parent will recognize that this ability comes early. Little children lie and scheme and need help to find the path to virtue. Sadly, a few even become remarkably evil at an early age.

[2] Again, the kind and generous Christian God would not leave his children without guidance. People have an inborn sense of the teachings and concepts of Christianity, and that sense can be seen in different forms amongst those who were raised in different pagan or modern faiths.

Conversation starters in the Media: Both The Godfather and Ed Wood  have scenes involving baptisms that are obviously of the wrong sort. Tess is sort of at the other end of things, with a mother who desperately wants  to give her baby the grace but who is denied the ritual.

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Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Difficult Concepts Made Simple 4 – Faith continued

Faith – The Power and the Peril

Can faith cure physical illness?  To some extent, yes.  Any time scientists test a new drug or other medical cure, they must use a control group of patients who take a placebo, a fake pill made with sugar or some such inactive substance, instead of the drug to be tested.  Why?  Because some of the patients always get better just because they think they are receiving a cure.  In order to prove that the test drug is effective, the scientists must show that it cures a percentage of patients that is higher than the percentage who are cured simply by their own belief that they will be cured by the treatment.  More broadly, any doctor or therapist will testify that patients do better if they have a good attitude than if they allow themselves to feel miserable and despairing.  Religious faith helps people to have a hopeful and positive attitude, and to avoid fear and despair.  In this way, faith can work real and sometimes dramatic physical cures.  By curing diseases of the soul it can help to cure diseases of the body.

But focusing on miraculous physical cures can cause us to overlook an even greater and more common miracle of faith.  Parents see a simple version of this form of miracle every day, when a child asks her mother to kiss a scraped finger and make it better.  We tend to think of this little ritual as just “fooling” the child into thinking the hurt has been cured, but in fact, from the child’s point of view, the kiss really does make the hurt better.  The kiss cures the child’s attitude towards the pain, and in doing so it makes the pain essentially go away.  Faith can do the same thing for the larger ills of grown-ups.  If you have faith that you should get on with your life as best you can, then you will focus your mind away from the injury or illness.  By keeping away fear and despair, faith makes us feel much better, even if we are not physically cured.  The wound may still exist, and it may still hurt, but we don’t mind so much that it hurts.  Not everyone benefits from miracle cures of the body, even if they have very strong faith, but everyone with faith benefits from this miracle of the mind.  It may be difficult to accept that God allows good people to suffer serious injuries or illnesses.  We feel that in justice such things should only happen to bad people.  God, however, does not deal in the material, but in the spiritual.  Justice lies in the strength of spirit that good people acquire by learning alignment with God, a strength that will see them through the bleakest adversity, for their vision sees through the clouds that may gather about their person to a brighter light beyond.  Justice lies too in the weakness of the corrupt, who suffer greatly from the thwarting of their material obsessions.  For them, every pain is magnified a hundredfold by the microscope they focus on themselves.  A mother may not be able to fix a bloody knee, but she can distract her child’s attention away from the blood and turn his screams into laughter by distracting him with a joke or a tickle.  In the same way, God may not fix the physical hurt, but through our faith he turns our attention away from the pain, and makes us better. To get the most of this, one needs to focus on an action – caring for your family, working to help others from suffering your problem, or anything where you can focus on doing something helpful. Faith is an active process.

Can faith move mountains?  In a sense, yes.  If a person has faith that she should do the right thing, even if she doesn’t see any positive results from doing it, then she will be a powerful personal force.  Think of the times in your life when you have failed to do something that you wanted to do.  Why did you finally give up?  Did you feel like you weren’t getting any credit or gratitude for your efforts?  Did you get bored or frustrated when you seemed to be banging your head against the wall without making any progress?  What could you have done if you had been absolutely convinced in your own mind that the thing had to be done, no matter what anyone thought and no matter how difficult or time-consuming it was?  A single person with the faith to persevere can find ways to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks.  She may not be able to pick up the mountain, but she will chip it away stone by stone until the job is done. Faith is strength.

Can faith be dangerous?  Potentially, yes.  Faith is a very powerful force.  By freeing us from the constraints of caring about public opinion or our own comfort or convenience, it permits us to take unpopular actions with enthusiasm.  This is often a very good thing.  Persons who opposed the Nazis in wartime Germany were undoubtedly not popular, but they were doing the right thing.  On the other hand, sometimes popular opinion is correct, and an action may well be unpopular because it is misguided.  Concern for public opinion causes a person to think twice before doing something that most people have decided is a bad idea. Strong faith can reduce this checking force, and thus places a stronger burden on the individual to make sure that his actions are not misguided.  The suicidal followers of Jim Jones and the unfortunates in the Heaven’s Gate cult who tried to send their souls after the Hale-Bopp comet clearly had strong faith, but misguided ideas.  Soldiers kill out of faith that their government is correct, when the soldiers of at least one side (and usually both)  in every war should redirect their faith to a more reliable source.  Religious zealots in every age have committed all manner of terrible crimes that would sicken most of us, overriding normal constraints of decency by the strength of their misguided faith in the rightness of their actions.

The above instances all share a common theme, which illustrates the way to avoid the dangers of faith.  In each case, the faith involved is faith in the correctness of an idea mixed together with the faith that correct action should be pursued regardless of personal consequences.  The latter form of faith provides the strength to do that which most people would reject, while the former form of faith provides the willingness to accept as virtuous that which most thinking people would rightly condemn.  We should not have faith in ideas.  Being the fallible creatures that we are, our ideas are probably wrong more often than not.  Correct ideas never suffer unduly by being questioned, for if the questioner probes far enough he will simply clear the dust away from the gleaming beauty of truth.  On the other hand, probing questions are the enemy of lies and error.  Thus, an unquestioning acceptance of any idea is not wise policy; it is an open door to evil.  The Father of Lies cannot succeed where all his lies are questioned.

Again, Christian faith is not faith in the specific tenets of the Christian religion.  It is not faith in the truth of particular ideas.  Even Christian ideas can and should be questioned.  Christ was a great questioner of commonly accepted ideas that were enforced with some vigor by the religious authorities of the time. Not only did he ask questions himself, he relished being questioned by others.  His style of teaching was to receive and answer questions, for he above all knew that questions would burnish, not tarnish, the lamp of truth. He even disliked providing straightforward instructions, which could easily be distorted and turned into dogma, preferring instead to speak in parables so that his followers would be required to think and understand, rather than to follow his commands blindly.

It is important to apply this same questioning spirit to little things as well as the large. It is very tempting to people who have enjoyed the good feeling that virtue gives to then set up a thousand little rules to follow, so that they can feel extra-virtuous for obeying all those rules. We must remember that one of Christ’s primary messages was that the scores of rules professed by the religious authorities of the day were nonsense and should be ignored, that instead we should concentrate on one rule – love. This, again, is the principle of connectedness. Christ wanted to make it clear that following needless rules is not the same thing as virtue, and that faith in rules is misguided faith.

Christian faith is simply faith in the value of virtue, and virtue lies in doing right by others.. Finding that virtue is a different matter.  Fortunately, Christianity provides us with extremely helpful tools for that quest, and it is to one of those tools, prayer, that we will turn in my next article.

 

Summary:

Faith provides the strength to get beyond suffering, to persevere, and to prevail – but its power must be properly directed

Faith can heal, and provides the strength to deal with suffering

Faith can enable you to move mountains – one rock at a time

Have faith in virtue – but be skeptical of ideas and rules

Springboards for discussion:

The movie Leap of Faith illustrates both the manipulation of faith and the power of the real thing

Further reading:

Jim Jones

The children’s crusades

The mormon meadows massacre

 

 

 

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Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Some Difficult Concepts Made Simple 3 – Faith

Faith – The Strength to Do What Needs to Be Done

The word faith is much abused, because religious discussion speaks often of faith without making clear what we are supposed to have faith in or to be faithful towards.  There have been many evil people in history – Cotton Mather, Jim Jones, Osama bin Laden, and thousands of others other large and small scale abusers – who have tried (too often successfully) to convince others that faith means believing whatever they are told, so long as the manipulative person in question is the person doing the telling.  For this reason it is especially important that children learn from an early age what the concept of faith really means in the Christian context.

To understand the concept, it is only necessary to look back to the principle of alignment with God and our example of the three children asked to clean their room.  Angela derives pleasure from the task of cleaning her room – a task which offers no pleasure in itself – because she has faith that it is the right thing to do.  The faith does not lie in her believing that cleaning her room is good.  That belief is based on logic, experience, and moral reflection.  We are not required to believe that something is “good” just because someone in authority says so, if our own logic and experience say otherwise.  The faith involved is her deep, emotional acceptance of the idea that doing what she logically believes to be the right thing is the only acceptable choice for her.  She is not troubled by thoughts such as “maybe it’s good, but it’s no fun – I want to go watch T.V. instead.”  She is convinced that the virtuous choice is the only choice for her, and so she feels good about doing the right thing even if it’s not inherently fun, and she would not enjoy shirking her duty by going out to play instead.  Christian faith is simply faith in the proposition that virtue is its own reward.  Such faith, once acquired, is difficult to shake, for by truly believing that virtuous behavior is a good thing without regard to material rewards or appreciation from others, the faithful person acquires the ability to feel pleasure in virtue under all circumstances.  For her, virtue is indeed its own reward because she believes it to be true.

Stubborn Stuart and Contracting Connie haven’t yet found this key to heaven.  Stuart makes his own and his mother’s life miserable because he is convinced that he should always do exactly what he wants, rather than thinking he should want to do what is right.  Connie thinks that she should receive a material reward for a virtuous act, and so not only fails to take pleasure in the act, but leaves herself open to having no pleasure at all if the material rewards ever stop.  Angela’s faith, her ability to feel good about doing the right thing just because it is good, is a treasure that the others lack.  By definition, no one can achieve the bliss that is heaven  without such faith, for without it one is incapable of feeling that bliss.

The value of such faith in achieving heavenly bliss is clear. Faith is the force that provides immunity against the pain of doubt and despair.  It frees us from the need for material rewards and satisfactions.  Most importantly, it protects us against the form of desperate desire that characterizes sin.  Stubborn Stuart really suffers when he cleans his room, because he is convinced that he by rights should be doing something else, and is absorbed in his unfulfilled desire to be elsewhere.  He cannot feel good about performing the task.  Angela does not feel the desire to be elsewhere, or at least not in the same way.  If she thinks about it she may wish that she had a room-cleaning robot, but she knows that she would not enjoy doing something else while the necessary task remains undone.  This prevents her from focusing on wanting to do something else, and immunizes her against that unfilled desire.  Her virtue shields her from unpleasant feelings, leaving her mind free to enjoy her accomplishments. Further, it helps to immunize her against the kinds of anxious feelings that can lead to despair.

Faith is subject to many tests, for life is filled with material distractions and many of them are subtle.  The admiration and thanks of others are particularly effective decoys from the pure joys of virtue.  It is easy to believe that if others admire you, you must be doing good things.  However, virtue and applause are not the same thing.  A very good person working to help unknown poor people in some rural county is unlikely to be as widely known and admired as some basically selfish football player who gives a check to charity.  A person who gets caught up in seeking applause will be easily discouraged from virtuous tasks.  He may find the heart to be a hero when television cameras are pointed his way, but his courage will fail when he is alone.  “Why should I help those ungrateful people?”, he will think.  “Why should I speak out against that evil if all my neighbors will think I am a nut or a troublemaker?”  When he does do the right thing, his joy will be measured by the applause meter, not by the goodness of the act.  If his neighbor helps in the cause and gets more attention for it, he will be jealous, rather than feeling joy in the virtue of his neighbor.  By allowing himself to be distracted from the conviction that virtuous action is worthwhile simply because it is virtuous, he will lose the joy that pure virtue brings. Further, he will lose the strength that faith should bring, the strength to feel good about himself and his choices even when others disapprove.  To enjoy the benefits of faith, then, we must clearly understand its role and work to purify our faith against such subtle attacks.  We must learn to enjoy virtue purely for the sake of the good that it does, and not for the sake of being perceived as virtuous by others.  As I will discuss in a later article, prayer can be a useful tool for distilling faith in this way.

(I should add at this point something that will be covered further later. We are not called upon to be perfect angels, and if one makes that mistake it will tend to undermine faith and replace it with inappropriate guilt. Angela will feel good about cleaning her room rather than making her mother do it because she does not want to burden her mother, not because she feels a compulsion to keep her room pristine. If we are following the principle of connectedness, we will recognize what is important and what is asking too much. Another writer has made this point well. )

Christ’s suffering was necessary for him to provide an example of perfect faith, free from the taint of vain distractions.  He did not face the cross in the context of a hero.  The people of Jerusalem turned against him and reviled him.  They tormented and humiliated him and called for his blood, choosing to have him executed in preference to a common killer.  His own disciples betrayed or disowned him.  Despite this, he accepted his assigned fate, firmly believing that he simply had no other valid choice.  Despite his words on the cross, he was not forsaken by the Father, for he was spared the torment of doubt.  Without that torment, anything is bearable.  Christ proved this, in the form of a man who knew fear, pain, and abandonment, and who was given the chance to avoid his fate, but yet never wavered from doing what he knew he should do.  Adam’s original sin was the pride that gave humankind the pain and danger of a choice between doing good or doing evil.  Christ purged that original sin through his demonstration of a faith so perfect that the pain of choice was eliminated – the virtuous course was the only course for him.  For anyone else who follows Christ’s example in faith, sin will be swept away.  They will not be tempted to stray from virtue, and will not feel the pain of doubt in the face of adversity.  This is not to say that they will not have to make difficult choices, for the path of virtue is often obscure, but they will choose knowing that their objective is to do the right thing.  They will feel joy in their virtue, and they will be spared from wondering:  “Am I a fool?  Is this worth it?”  For such a person, bliss is not difficult to find.

This brings us to another one of the hard questions.  Most Christian children have heard that one must have faith in order to get to heaven.  On hearing this, they will often ask what happens to children in other countries who have not been raised in “The Faith” – are they automatically condemned to hell?  I hope that the above discussion shows why this is a misguided question.  One does not need to be raised in “the Christian faith” or to believe in any of the details of Christian doctrine to have the kind of faith that one needs to find heaven.  Those who think so have been confused by the many different uses of the word “faith”.  The faith that counts is faith that virtue is its own reward, that a person should do the right thing simply because it is the right thing.  A person raised as a Muslim, a Hindu, or an atheist can all have that type of faith, they can all be good people, and they can all find the bliss that comes from such virtuous faith.  Christ did not sweep through cities in a blaze of fire and glory, making everyone believe without question that he must be divine.  His body was not removed from the cross by a glowing angel as proof to the onlookers that he was the son of God.  Instead, he walked the earth as a man, talking to people, and he suffered ridicule, torture and death to give an example of perfect human faith for other people of faith to follow.  When Thomas, after being a disciple up through the crucifixion, still doubted, he was not cast into a lake of fire; he was given reassurance to help him to find the faith to do what had to be done next.  This is not, in short, a religion that demands uncritical, unthinking acceptance of particular teachings.  Rather, it is a religion that asks us to seek to build the faith within ourselves that will help us to want to do the right thing, and to build the wisdom to figure out what the right thing is.

In the next article I will address the power of faith, and the hazards that come with that power.

Summary:

Faith is the deep emotional conviction that the virtuous course of action is the only acceptable one. It makes alignment with God possible.

Faith is the deep conviction that one should and must do the virtuous thing

Faith frees us from the pain of doubt, sin and despair

Christ’s life and death gave us an example of perfect faith

Adam and Eve brought the choice of good and evil, Christ showed faith removes that burden

A common movie theme is the ordinary person who becomes a hero because he or she is emotionally unable to choose the other path. They have faith. In Angels With Dirty Faces, James Cagney does the right thing at the cost of earthly “honor”, through saving faith.

Further reading:

Integrity – Doing the right thing for the right reason

Doing the right things for the wrong reasons

Virtue is its own reward

 

 

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