Hypnosis: The Cognitive and Metaphysical Model

As promised, we will now open the flood gates to the empirical field of psychology, allowing the oceans of data, observations, and theories that permeate that entire academic universe to come pouring into our discussion, which has hitherto been purely philosophical.  Our best and most celebrated source is the outstanding research of one Ernest R. Hilgard.  Of course, we need always be mindful of the way we use this information; after all, we have yet done little to address the actual morality of hypnosis in itself—which is a very complicated subject, to be dealt with in a later post—and so the study of such must be approached with a similar note of caution, for the actual data of the study is taken from direct experience; that is, psychologists run tests by actually hypnotising people.  So it is relevant to ask whether hypnosis is moral in a clinical context and, if not, whether at least the study of the scholarship that comes out of such sciences is permissible.

I am led to believe that the latter of these is true.  My reasoning is simple: I could never answer the former question if I were not allowed to study it.  The world is full of all sorts of crazy ideas about hypnosis and meditation formulated, mostly, by people who have not given the subject a moment’s worth of critical, academic exploration.  Many Christians are inclined to write entire articles about the matter without having picked up a single book.  And I sincerely sympathise with such people.  It is very tempting to simply let the matter be, or address it without studying it, for the mere sake of condemning the highly elusive and frightening practice; however, that I should be required to reject something as an immorality before I know so much as the first thing about it seems, to me, entirely unreasonable, and even itself an immoral practice.  It is a part of our duty as human beings to understand the nature of things and observe the world around us.  In my own undertaking of this task, a study of hypnosis has become a relevant and even an integral part.  We ought to follow the example of St. Paul in such matters, understanding the ideas of a pagan world and transforming them into something useful to our cause.  If you disagree with me on this point, then I urge to to stop reading now.

As I have mentioned, in this brief exploration, we will be relying heavily on Hilgard and his theory of ‘the divided consciousness’ and ‘the hidden observer’ active in hypnosis.  Hilgard begins his argument by pointing out that in normal psychology, it is possible for a motive to be dissociated from a task.  He writes, “the acceptability of central controls, in the form of executive and monitoring functions, does not mean that all behaviour and experience must be referred to them.  What happens is that once an activity is under way it becomes relatively self-sustaining” (Fromm 47).  Next, he mentions what J. R. Hodge called ‘the hypnotic contract’ (Hodge), which refers to the agreement that occurs between the hypnotist and the subject before an induction—the agreement to comply with whatever the hypnotist instructs him or her to do.  When the subject agrees to this, he or she does so for a particular end, whether that be therapy, study, or entertainment.  But the process of induction is a method of dissociating this motive from the actual suggestibility so that the process becomes ‘self-sustaining’, forgoing any reference to the monitoring functions.

Hilgard gives several examples of how this might be accomplished in a typical induction, one of them being an eye-closure device, in which the subject is told to fixate on an object, only later to receive the suggestion that his or her eyes are closing.  This creates, as Hilgard writes, a dissociative situation in which subjects feel as though they are trying to keep their eyes open, but their eyes are closing of their own accord; the fact that they are the ones actively closing their own eyes has been dissociated from consciousness (Fromm 49).  Hilgard offers the following explanation: “The details of [an] actuated experience, [i.e. the fact that the subject is closing his or her own eyes,] are reported accurately by the monitor [(the part of the mind that monitors input)].  The activated subsystem, [i.e. the dissociated act of closing one’s eyes] does not use all the information about how the [process] was suggested, … and the monitoring functions do not offer any correction for this omission.  This lack of normal criticism was called ‘trance logic’ by Orne” (Fromm 51, Orne).

This basic cognitive model is very well supported by a number of experiments that Hilgard references, many of which include the concept of a ‘hidden observer’.  One example is a study involving hypnotically induced temporary deafness.  In the experiment, the subject was temporarily made deaf through hypnotic suggestion, but told that, when the hypnotist places his arm on the subject’s shoulder, “there would be contact with a concealed part of himself, unknown to the hypnotised part, that could describe what had gone on while he was deaf” (Fromm 57).  Something was then said to the deaf subject, after which, the hypnotist put his arm on the subject’s shoulder, allowing the subject to repeat what he had heard when deaf, of which he had no recollection either before the arm was there placed or after it was removed.  This phenomenon evidences Hilgard’s ‘divided consciousness’: a part of the subject is in a normal state of consciousness, aware of everything that goes on around him or her, but that part is dissociated from the subject, such that he or she is only aware of whatever the hypnotist allows.

These findings are supported by many other studies and other authors on the matter, the reading of which I recommend to anyone seeking a more complete study.  However, for our purpose at present, we need only acknowledge that this cognitive model seems quite well supported and is the basic structure of current psychological theory.  Hence we may turn to the task of relating this to our metaphysical model.

It is a rather brief task: in my last post, I concluded that dissociated functioning is made possible by the introduction of a species of contradiction declarative—we will hereafter call it ‘the dissociation declarative’—which states, “all that follows needn’t be in noncontradiction with the primal premise”.  This is the essential nature of ‘the hypnotic contract’.  Hypnotic induction is a process of reducing the criticality of one’s consciousness to mere trance logic and increasing the gravity of the hypnotic contract (here seen as a declarative) until it crosses a threshold, where it becomes the dissociation declarative.

Works that I Cited:

Fromm, Erika, and Ronald E. Shor. Hypnosis: Developments in Research and New Perspectives. New York: Aldine Pub., 1979. Print.

Hodges, J. R. “The Contractual Aspects of Hypnosis.” International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis 24 (1976): 391-99. Print.

Orne, M. T. “The Nature of Hypnosis: Artifact and Essence.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 58 (1959): 277-99. Print.

A Theological Preface

This post is the inception of a new series on hypnosis and related topics.

Prologue

I want to begin this inquiry by making it perfectly clear that I do not hereby endorse the practice of hypnosis in any way.  The essential pursuit of this study—and I think it has, in this regard, proved itself acceptably, and indeed, even exceedingly, fruitful—is to better understand the human condition, and in so doing, to better understand God Himself, the designer of that condition, which is the central pursuit of all scholarship that I here publish.  Mind you, this is primarily a philosophical argument, not a theological one, and so, God willing, there should be many useful ideas to be found in it for my honourable, non-christian friends as well.

Abstract

You might just skip this section if these things bore you.  I hope you don’t mind my sort of informal use of the first person plural–although it’s a little unprofessional and conceivably, to some, pretentious, I think it makes this stuff a little more enjoyable to read, or perhaps, only slightly less dull and unbearable.

We will begin the argument with this theological post–of course I use the term ‘theological’ loosely–on the morality of the argument itself.  The question here is whether it is moral to even study something like hypnosis.  In this sub-argument, we will explore the requisites that Christian doctrine entails for acceptable and pious scholarship, and then ask whether the pursuit in which we are about to engage, with its particular ends and means, satisfies such requisites.  We will conclude that it does so.

We will then proceed, in a following post, to layout a philosophical framework for and model of the metaphysics of hypnosis.  In this post, we will ask whether the possibility of hypnosis is self-evident.  In the second volume of his Summae Theologiae Thomas Aquinas writes Dicendum quod contingit aliquid esse per se notum dupliciter, uno modo secundum se et non quoad nos, alio modo secundum se et quoad nos, “It must be argued that the fact that something is self-evident touches us on two accounts, in one way according to itself and not to us, in the other way, according to itself and to us”.  The former of these manners is that in which we shall expect the possibility of hypnosis to be self-evident.  On the surface, it is not known to everyone that people can be hypnotised, but logically, it can be deduced, by anyone who so chooses, without any reference to empirical observation.  This is the task we shall undertake in answer to the question, and is the true end of asking the question.  What we will end up with is a metaphysical model of what happens when a person enters into a hypnotic state, and such a model will be valuable for the critical evaluation of the practice of hypnosis and related occurrences.

In posts following that one, we will explore the way our philosophical model relates to current psychological theories, and then, ultimately, we will evaluate the morality of hypnosis and discuss several other applications of the theory of dissociation (which we will have derived by that point).  I’ll write a separate abstract for those posts if I believe it to be necessary.

Is the Study of Hypnosis Moral?

It is a curious proceeding to begin this argument with an inquiry into the morality of ‘hypnosis’, before we have even so much as trifled to define the term.  However, it is also, to some degree, a necessary prerequisite to a discussion of the matter; before we study hypnosis, we must confirm that such a pursuit is not itself immoral, lest we should find ourselves seeking plus sapere quam oportet sapere, ‘to know more than is fitting’ (Romans 12:3).  And so we must begin this essay with an inquiry into the essay’s own morality.  Hence the question follows: Is the study of hypnosis a moral one?

Notice, I have quoted the Biblical passage from the Latin Vulgate, not the original Greek New Testament; this is because the Vulgate is, for that particular verse, as for many others, a slight mistranslation.  The actual Greek appears to concern itself, as we conventionally interpret it, with pride, and not directly with seeking more knowledge than is fitting.  In it, Paul cautions against ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ᾽ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν, ‘thinking more highly [of one’s self] than it is necessary to think’.  There is some ambiguity—which I believe is intentional.  Paul has left out the personal pronoun, so that, in a sense, the passage could have a double meaning; it could in fact be a warning against thinking of loftier things than is fitting.  However, the sort of pronoun that should have been included, an ‘accusative’ personal pronoun, would have created a sense of ‘thinking with respect to one’s self’, and the pronoun is very clearly implied due to the impersonal construction in the restrictive relative clause;˚ in fact, it is so clearly implied that the sentence doesn’t make sense without it.  Most literally, Paul tells us not to think ‘beyond what thing, with respect to us, it is necessary to think’, where the accusative of respect—the part that translates, ‘with respect to us’—would seem to apply to both the necessity and the thinking; thus, ‘it is necessary for us to not think too highly about us‘.

In English, the phrase is generally rendered, ‘do not think higher of yourselves than is necessary’—it is a warning not against thinking ‘to highly’ in general, nor even against thinking highly of one’s self, but against thinking higher of one’s self than is necessary or fitting.  This interpretation particularly makes sense in the context: Paul has just finished encouraging the Romans to seek to know the Good and Perfect Will of God through τῇ ἀνακαινώσει, ‘the renewing’, of their minds, and has told them to present their bodies as a living sacrifice.  He follows the aforementioned warning by saying, “but think toward being sober-minded, each individual as God appointed the measure of faith.  For as in one body we have many members, and all the members have not the same purpose, thus are we, many individuals, one body in Christ, and each individual is a member of the other.”  So the focus is on sacrificing one’s individual identity to a new identity in Christ.  The old body is to be laid down in order to become a unique member of a larger body; to gain a purposeful identity.  Thus, Paul tells the Romans to not think higher of themselves, as individuals, than is fitting, lest they should, in so doing, fail to see their proper πρᾶξις, ‘purpose’, ‘action’, or ‘function’ in the larger body of Christ, which they must seek to discern by continually renewing their minds.  In this way, the focus is on what they should seek to know more than it is on what they shouldn’t.

Hence, Paul does not seem to explicitly discourage us from pursuing any study, and hence, my warrant for the discretion that must be taken upon entering a study is much more of an appeal to medieval, Christian philosophy and wisdom than to any direct Biblical principle.  Dante (1265 – 1321) was fond of isolating just this verse, as it appears in the vulgate, and premising an argument on it—dealing with what one should and shouldn’t seek to know.  (Of course, he did so using the vulgate, the only ecclesiastically accepted version at the time.)  What further added to the power of such an interpretation in medieval times was the etymology of the word sapere.  The original meaning of the word in classical times was ‘to taste’, and then, by metaphor, it came to mean ‘to discern’ or ‘to think’, a meaning that paralleled the original Greek more closely than what followed, which is probably how St. Jerome would have understood the word when he wrote it in the late fourth century AD.  However, in modern Latin, it has come to have a meaning closer to its usage in Italian, ‘to know’.  Hence, by the time Dante, the Italian, was writing, this verse about how highly one should think, presumably of one’s self, was instead considered a comment on how much one should seek to know.  As a result, Dante, in his Vita Nuova and Commedia, offers us some wonderful insight into the ‘limits’ a virtuous Christian scholar should set on himself—the bounds within which it is fitting to think.  But such arguments should be taken as the philosophical output of a Christian, medieval thinker, and not theological, for the reasons just discussed.

However, this does not all together deprive Dante’s discussion of its value; it is still, in any case, the philosophy of a wise man, and it may even yet hold some theological basis.  It is interesting to note that, while we Christian thinkers have often lost an absurd amount of sleep over the difference between substantiation, transubstantiation, and all the like of ivory-tower nonsense, knowing, to our sheer horror, that all the while, people throughout the entire world will never even read enough to join the discussion, let alone find the right answers for themselves—while all manner of such scholarly worries pervade our minds and make us doubt the very point or significance of our work, even then, the whole substance of these minor interpretative issues, and even of archaeological issues, has a way of discreetly ironing itself out in the background.  Such is the case here.  As I have said, the Greek itself is a bit ambiguous.  I believe this is on purpose.  As we understand the text today, it warns us against pride, while at the same time, encouraging us to exercise the full capacity of our cognitive faculties.  Hence, the verse remains, in part, an advisement as to how one should use his or her powers of reason: do not use them to think too highly of yourself, but to think of God—to pursue and to know Him, in short, to sapere Him.

So Paul’s advice to the modern scholar may be very close to Dante’s interpretation after all: a scholar is to think about and pursue the truth, not himself.  The focus is to be on fulfilling one’s πρᾶξις, one’s function, and serving, with discernment and the renewing of one’s mind, the larger body, the Body of Christ, as apposed to that which will bring the scholar personal glory and with which he might cultivate a foolish sense of pride.  This focus has been the essential guiding framework of the Christian mind, and consequentially, the Western mind, throughout the ages.  It is what has given structural integrity and coherence to western philosophy, and I would argue that it’s exactly the principle to which the medievals were referring, though they discussed it in their more archaic manner.  (For a good illustration of this, see Erasmus’ cynically brilliant Stultitiae Laus, trans. The Praise of Folly, or according to the Greek pun, The Praise of More, in the first section of which Declamatio, we find Stultitia, the female personification of folly, mocking the Christian thinkers of the day for the sort of vices as are illuminated by the aforementioned verse in Romans.  Erasmus points out, to the condemnation of his contemporaries, that such esoteric exercises as calculating the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin were of little service to the body of Christ.)

But our present discussion is about the morality of writing an essay on hypnosis.  So the question is whether such an inquiry is fitting for a sober mind and whether it will help illuminate the Perfect Will of God, illuminate what is Good and Acceptable.  And for this purpose, this function, I believe it will serve wonderfully.  What this inquiry ultimately aims to accomplish is to pull the foggy mysticism of what shall be loosely termed ‘New Age philosophy’ (with its heavy emphasis on ‘meditation’ or, to use the more scientific term, ‘self-hypnosis’) into a scope of reason so that it may be critically assessed; however, I expect that we will discover a number of other valuable and useful insights along the way.

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˚ I have emphasized the fact that the clause is restrictive because such an observation supports the translation here posited: “do not think higher than what is necessary with respect to yourself” makes it easier to borrow the accusative of respect from the relative clause; where as, if the clause were nonrestrictive, “do not think higher than something, which it is necessary for you to think”, our translation would be more of a stretch.

The Poetic Optimism of Christmas

Some three or four years ago, I and three others had a discussion on the existence of God and whether, if God exists, he is anything like the God we find in the Christian Bible.  That particular discussion was between two Christians, myself included, and two atheists or agnostics.  At a moment in the discussion that, to this day, stands as an exceptionally vivid recollection in my mind, one of the non-christian gentleman asked of a particular doctrine, ‘but what’s the point of that?’, as if to say that the notion was unpleasant or inconvenient, to which the other offered the corrective reply, ‘No, it isn’t a matter of practicality, they actually believe it’s true’.

What was so memorable for me about this moment, and what should be so significant about it for others, is the way it blatantly uncovered a fundamental misunderstanding that many non-christians have about Christianity: we Christians do, as my friend said, actually believe in what we read in the Bible.  This seems, to most Christians, like it should be obvious, but from outside the tradition looking inward, it’s not.  Outside of Christianity, allover the world, people believe in things not because they are necessarily convinced of their truth, but because they want to.  In the common model, human comfort and happiness precedes, and is even the essential purpose of, human reasoning and philosophy, and philosophy is built around what is pleasant and practical; it is a rationalisation of that which is easiest to believe.

This pattern of human behaviour likely stretches all the way back to the beginning of mankind’s existence, ruling the human mind ever since we left the Garden of Eden, but I can at least vouch for its continued existence and dominance since antiquity.  This is significant because it means that even since the very birth of Christianity, there has been friction between the rest of the world and this very different kind of tradition—a kind of tradition in which, among other things, the sacred text is believed to be absolutely true.

At large, the pagan traditions of the ancient Greeks and Romans centred their doctrines around the magnificent works of the epic poets, such as Homer and Vergil, among the which are the yet extant Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid, and also many others we have since lost, all of which likely derived from an oral tradition predating the time of Homer around the seventh or eight century BC.  The tales of these epics were called μύθοι (transliteration: muthoi) by the Greeks, from which we get our English word, myth.  This is why the vast body of pagan religious literature in which those works are included is called ‘mythology’ in modern times.  Today, one of the primary meanings of the word ‘myth’ is ‘a false story’, but to the ancient Greeks, a μῦθος was, first and foremost, a story.  Hence, the word itself did not denote these tales as necessarily false, but even in ancient Greece, the word was also used for fables and professed works of fiction.  So, even for the ancient Greeks, as I would argue, there was a looming undertone of falsehood in the connotation of the word.

This semi-modern usage of the word myth is what makes the world of Indian religions, and many similar traditions, go round.  Indian religion is of interest because it is comparable to ancient Greek traditions in this respect.  Just as in ancient Greek mythology, there are many formulations of the same myths, and each one is considered valuable in its own right, though, to account for the contradictions, none of them need be true.  They are myths, didactic fables that have significance in the moral and philosophical principles they present, but not necessarily in their histories.

This is the same sort of religious scene into which a very different kind of story, the true story of Christ, entered some two-thousand years ago.  In principle, Christianity should not have been dramatically different from what preceded it.  We can find the idea of a reversed hierarchy, in which the God of the universe is made to be born, a man, in the humblest of circumstances—we can find something very similar to such a concept in Odysseus’ return to his family as a beggar instead of a hero, after his rightful place as head of the house has been usurped by suitors, just as Christ’s rightful sovereignty was held by the Roman empire.  And the idea of self-sacrifice is all over ancient tales of battle and κλέος, epic glory.  But these things were principles and philosophic ideals that were thought of with a kind of dreamy romanticism; they were the way things ought to be.˚

On the other hand, the radical proposition of Christianity that such stories could be historical fact, and indeed, could be the singular story of God Himself, is something all together unprecedented in human history.  In this way, Christ’s birth is the epitome of what I have called ‘poetic optimism’ in my last post.  Just as Catullus takes the vulgar understanding of love and humanity and transforms it into something better, so does Christ’s birth transform pagan mythology.

As I pointed out in my last post, our word ‘vulgar’ comes from the Latin vulgaris, meaning ‘common’, or ‘that which belongs to the vulgus, the common people’.  This is the way we might describe pagan mythology before Christ.  It was something common, and even, occasionally, something vulgar.  In Greek and Roman mythology, references to love are really references to Venus, sexuality and lust.  But Christmas presents a fresh ideal of love, a transformation of this common thing into something far more weighty and worthy.  It’s the story not of a god falling in love with or lusting over a human, but of the God displaying His sacrificial love that He has born for humanity since He first conceived of her.

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˚ On a less serious note, I’d like to point out that the Greeks even mocked the ridiculousness of their own mythology, with one of my favourite examples being a line from Aristophanes’ comedy, Birds: Heracles addresses Poseidon, “Just hold on a minute there, Poseidon, by god!  Do we really want to fight a war over a single woman?  That’s ridiculous!”  I would make a footnote explaining the humour of this line for those of you who may not get it, but this is already a footnote, and right now, making a footnote to a footnote is a little too silly even for me.

φίλει ἐμὲ for now

bible

I once had a professor who took great pleasure in whining about all the short comings of the Christian Church. “Christianity,” he often complained, “is a very nay-saying religion.”  He went to great lengths to illustrate how negative and oppressive the Church has been throughout history. It’s curious, but I can hardly remember him ever saying ‘yea’ to anything.

I believe there is, however, something to be learned from these sorts of people. For some reason, whether it be valid or invalid, a significant portion of the world has accumulated a great abundance of animosity directed toward the Christian Church. Of course, we might find it pleasant to focus primarily on the ungrounded reasons for this hatred, or the fact that Satan hates the Church and so it is most natural for his dominion to hate it too, but I find myself convinced that there is also some truth—and perhaps even more than we’d like to admit—in the accusations others lay on the fallen Body of Christ. I think a particular favourite of secularists today is the ‘self-righteousness’ or ‘holier than thou’ conviction. It seems the modern image of a Christian is that of a highly judgmental and proud individual who finds self-worth in following a set of moral principles, or even a set of mere rules, more closely—as that individual perceives it—than anyone else.

I need hardly mention how this image is the product of an unbelievably scrutinising world, the sort of world that perpetually scours the Church for flaws and inflates them to no end—in short, a ‘nay-saying’ world. As Shakespeare observed, “The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones” (Julius Caesar III.ii.74-5). Vice is always more quickly made famous among mankind than virtue. But we must nonetheless consider why the Church suffers from this vice, even if it is not as severe as the world may exaggerate it to be.

The most evident cause I see is the same thing that keeps all the secularists out of the Church in the first place—fear.  We Christians often fail to realise from the start that if you don’t store up treasures here on earth, you will end up without any treasures here on earth—it’s that simple. A virtuous scholar who spends his life honestly pursuing the truth rather than outputting bizarre liberalism for the sake of acquiring fame and admiration will most likely end his life without either of those treasures; a mother and father who devote their lives to raising children and loving their family rather than pursuing prestige and fulfilment in the work place or elsewhere will probably never have that fulfilment; and a lonely custodian who does nothing more than clean up and offer an understanding smile to the occasional passerby will probably never acquire anything valuable on this indifferent earth.

Human beings are very attracted to the idea of becoming poor for love’s sake, but they don’t like poverty itself. And so the last temptation of a disciple of Christ is to find fulfilment in ‘religious merit’.  Once a man is striped of everything he thought he owned and is left naked with nothing but a Bible in his hand, he begins to clutch that Bible and exhibit a possessiveness over it that has only been intensified by being frustrated. But as he stands there, trembling in the fear that he has just thrown away everything of value that he ever knew, he has arrived at the precise moment when his sacrifice ought to be consummated. After all, he didn’t become poor merely for the sake of being poor, but in order that he might become rich. So he is demanded to let go and realise that even his sacrifice is worth nothing in itself, for only the blood of Jesus can save him—and so indeed he has become poor merely for love’s sake. But for some reason, this is among the most terrifying moments of the human experience.  This is when we start to realise that the phantasmagorical Jesus-dream we’ve been chasing for so long better be more real than the very beating of our hearts, for all that we are is resting on it.

In John 21:15-7 Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”  The Greek word that he uses the first two times is ἀγαπᾷς, meaning “Do you love me unconditionally?”  But Peter responds each time with, “yes, I φιλῶ you”, meaning “yes, I am fond of you”, or “yes, you are a friend to me”.  So the third time, Jesus asks “Do you φιλεῖς me?”, meaning “Am I a friend to you?”  And then something strange happens. The scriptures say that Peter was upset because Jesus had asked him three times “Do you φιλεῖς me?”  But this isn’t what Jesus did; Jesus first asked Peter twice if he loved him without limits—that is, if he loved him enough to give up everything for his sake—but it’s as if Peter never even heard this calling.

Simple, not Minimalist

lucem at quoque noctem plus vel enim amo.

Upon moving into my residence hall here at the university last week, I encountered a bit of difficulty.  It seemed my plans were too complicated for the room.  The microwave plug didn’t fit into the power strip and this meant that the whole apparatus I had formed—with the printer on top of the microwave and the microwave on top of the refrigerator—had to be relocated to a place in the room that would better accommodate for all the electrical connections.  I had, from the start, opposed my bringing of so many appliances to school, but my parents insisted that I do so in order to make the place more comfortable and ‘home-like’.

After trying out a few different arrangements of the room, each one feeling more cramped than the last, I settled on stuffing all the appliances except the refrigerator into a small storage space in the upper part of the wardrobe and moving the furniture into the least confining arrangement possible.  When I was all done with this, I felt quite remarkably liberated; suddenly the little space, which had seemed very much to resemble a prison only moments ago, transformed itself into a rather pleasant study and dormitory.  Now I have a big beautiful desk basking in natural sunlight beside the window where I can lay out my orchestra scores to work (see figure 1).

I told my mum how I felt about this when I rang her up that evening.  She and I both agreed that if I felt more comfortable without all the clutter, I didn’t need to use it, seeing as comfort was the original purpose of the supplies.  As I write this, all of the mentioned supplies, along with several other items, are sitting in that storage place, waiting patiently to be brought home.  The new order of my room is by no means minimalistic—aside from the refrigerator I mentioned, I also have here a good number of my books and my unicycle—but it is simple.  That’s the beauty of it.

On the same day that I made these arrangements, I was thinking about economic styles of music, art, and writing.  Among the many examples of the aesthetic I had in mind were a couple of scenes in Shakespeare, that popped into my head, as well as the opening line of Milton’s famous epic, which reads:  “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree”.  Part of the brilliance of this line is how simply it conveys something so large and complicated.  Instead of droning on and on pedantically to lay out the details of a theological framework for the ‘fall of man’, Milton leans into the lexical and philosophical associations already built into the English language—perhaps placed their directly by the hand of God himself—in order to discuss not only the hamartiology of an ‘original sin’ or ‘total depravity’, nor the soteriology of ‘salvation’, but the entire human understanding of all the associated ideas, dreamings, and truths that have been passed down via the Indo-European language from before the time of the Romans to the present, now to be contained in the single English word ‘fruit’.

You may have already sensed this by now if you read this blog often, but I am, quite frankly, all about complexity.  I make nearly every form of art or study that I engage in as complicated as I possibly can.  But the reason things ought to be so complex, in my mind, is because that’s the only way they can become simple.  One of the greatest transformations that western languages have undergone over time is simplification.  Dead languages often have very complicated grammars, and it is through these original complex systems that modern languages have come to posses the power they hold today in their much simpler forms.  We might also note, however, the way this complexity supported something simpler even in the ancient languages themselves.  If this post were written in Ancient Greek or Latin, you would probably be finished reading it by now (assuming you were as fluent in one of those languages as you are in English).   Indeed, you would have probably finished reading a good while ago; the reason for this is that the more complicated grammars allowed for more economic communication—simpler sentences had more complicated meanings than in modern English.

I am not here by proposing that ‘less is more’.  That’s ridiculous!  Less is less.  But somehow the God of the universe has been able to communicate to humanity everything they need to know in order to be self-conscious and self-willing creatures, and if so much is possible, then is it not our duty, as artists, thinkers, and human beings, to at least try, by virtue of that very possibility, to stuff the entire human experience into something portable and sharable?

The beauty of fractals is that no matter how much or how little of their detail you can make out, they look similar and appear the same.

“Rely upon no o…

“Rely upon no other Physician [save God alone], for, according to my apprehension, He reserves your cure to Himself.”

–The Eleventh Letter of the entretiens et letteres du Frere Laurent (‘Practice of the Presence of God’)

What’s Unique about Christianity?

Below you will find an essay of mine on the topic of Christian grace.  Please understand that this piece was originally intended for a different audience and therefore has some discordancies with the usual nature of this blog.  In my opinion, the writing style is rather ugly, but I do believe the inquiry is worthy of consideration, and therefore have concluded on posting the piece anyway.  It’s rather accessible (accessible is a word which here means “easy to read and understand”), which I imagine is a bit of a relief for some readers.

Here it is:

Christian Grace

The story is often told about the casual yet profound comment that C. S. Lewis made during part of some colloquial discourse at a British religions conference (“Did the Writers…”).  Lewis is said to have walked in on a few of his colleagues as they were arguing about what one unique contribution Christianity alone could claim to have added to the massive net of ideologies that make up the religions of the world.  When he heard them arguing, C. S. Lewis is said to have passively and whimsically responded that the answer was grace.

Of course C. S. Lewis didn’t mean that Christianity is altogether the only religion with a concept of grace.  Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find any major religion that does not have some concept of grace.  Grace is an essential part of the human mind, and therefore, must also play a very important role in human religion of all traditions.  But what C. S. Lewis may have been getting at, and may have had good reason for so thinking, was that the particular formulation of grace found in Christianity is the most strikingly distinguishing feature that sets Christianity apart from other religions.

In this essay, I will examine the validity of Lewis’ claim from this understanding of what he meant.  I will begin by discussing what is meant by the “Christian doctrine of grace,” and then briefly hold it against a small number of other religious and cultural contexts to begin to discover what, if anything, is truly unique about it.  This will by no means be a sufficiently thorough exploration to merit a definitive answer to the inquiry into the uniqueness of Christian grace, but it will begin to unpack some of the unique principles that distinguish Christian grace from other formulations and indeed Christianity as a whole from other religions.  This essay, then, is a brief inquiry into the identity of Christianity in the context of the larger world.

And so we must begin by asking: what is the Christian understanding of grace?  It seems this should be a rather elementary question that can be answered simply by paging through the Christian Bible, and indeed such a method of exploration should merit the most definitive answer to the question, but the issue has been made foggy by the many interpretations of the text that have been made throughout history.  Much of the Christian theological debate about grace is centred around the complexity of “covenant theology” (Mackinnon 143-145).  Covenant theology is the highly prevalent Christian doctrine that the Bible consists of two covenants: (1) the Old Testament Covenant, or the Covenant of Works and (2) the New Testament Covenant, or the Covenant of Grace.  Throughout history and across different denominations, these two different covenants have been assigned varying levels of importance.

The Covenant of Works, which is found in the Old Testament, is the covenant that God formed with his people by which they could acquire salvation through good deeds and obedience to his laws.  In the Old Testament, we find a God of justice and order, the very epitome of what the ancient Greeks referred to as dikê.  He is a God of rules, and one who punishes disobedience.  This is the basis of the Covenant of works; in many ways it is much more anthropocentric than the Covenant of Grace, in that it is focused on what humans do for their own salvation.

The Covenant of Grace is more theocentric.  This covenant, found primarily in the New Testament, is the promise that salvation is gained through grace.  In the New Testament, we find a God of love and grace.  In this sense of the word, grace means not only propitiousness, but unmerited acts of love towards humanity.  Grace, in the New Testament, is ultimately about the forgiveness and atonement that God grants humanity out of his love.

In Christianity, these two covenants have largely been at odds with each other, and much of the work in Christian theology has been spent in trying to understand how these two dichotic facets of Biblical dogma are to work together, or to what extent one ought to be rejected in favour of the other.  Malcolm H. Mackinnon traces some of the historical development of covenant theology in the first part of his article “The Weber Thesis Reconsidered.”  Mackinnon writes that while Calvin himself initially stressed a doctrine of sola fide, or “faith alone,” and thus rejected the Covenant of Works (considering the new testament a replacement of this), much of Calvinism differed greatly from its founding father, especially concerning this issue.  In general, the Puritans were obsessed with works, and not out of an irrational quest for phycological comfort as Weber had supposed, but as a result of the actual content of their doctrines, which rejected much of Calvin’s theology.  This is how Mackinnon explains the protestant work ethic (Mackinnon 143-145).

However, it should also be noted from Mackinnon that the extreme opposite end of the spectrum can be found in Calvin and, to some extent, in Luther.  Calvin saw the notion that one could earn one’s way to heaven through works as heretical and even blasphemous due to the way it belittles God.  For Calvin, the human will is incapable of doing good because it has been infected with evil since the fall.  God mysteriously foreordains salvation to an elect few, for reasons that humans cannot understand, unrelated to human deeds.  To claim that a human will can practice benevolence—or let alone earn its way to heaven—in spite of its fallen state is to claim that it is capable of divine action (Mackinnon 152-155).

But in between these two extremes was a covenant theology that tempered grace with justice.  Such a theology can perhaps be found in Perkins, who asserted that God requires humanity to work and act righteously, but out of his grace, accepts the very strife for righteousness as righteousness itself (Mackinnon 156).  In this way, human works are still insufficient and require grace, but they are also a necessary part of sanctification.  Indeed even Calvin, in his complete rejection of the Old Testament Covenant did not all together reject the works themselves.  Calvin insisted that works were merely an inseparable part of sola fide justification because anyone who truly wished to be forgiven and saved could not help but naturally do good deeds in response to God’s grace.  However, Perkins furthered this concept in that works were not only the natural response to Gods grace, but also a necessary requisite part of God’s grace in that they were the material which God graciously accepted as perfection, provided they were performed sincerely.

In my opinion, this latter theology seems more becoming of the Bible than the other more extreme views.  Even in the Old Testament, we find many references to God’s love and prophecies of his grace.  The ritual of slaughtering animal sacrifices for the atonement of sin, for example, shows us that even the Old Testament Covenant has some understanding of grace and the insufficiency of human works.  Additionally, we find mention of the importance of works in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s letters to the churches. Indeed, the Bible is filled with examples of the two covenants working together rather than in opposition of each other, and I propose that the unique complementary function of these two covenants is precisely the source of Christianity’s distinct identity.

In Cristiano Grottanelli’s article, “A Comparative study of the stories of Ruth, Charila, Sita,” we are presented with a model of how various religions have successfully made use of both the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of grace (or their particular analogue of these covenants).    In the context of the three myths or stories that he presents, Grottanelli makes the interesting claim that “grace” (or mercy) is the same thing as “justice” (Grottanelli 22).  This is because each of the tales is about a kingly figure, who, out of his generosity, solves a crisis that a helpless woman is made to undergo.  Grottanelli contends that because the kingly figures are royal, and “generosity is a duty for him who is master over all” (Grottanelli 21-22), their exercises of generosity, or grace, are also exercises of justice.  Hence we have a primitive framework for the way in which grace and justice can work together found in several different traditions.  However, this framework is merely that—a framework.  While we might suppose that generosity is, at least in the human context, a duty of the able, the postulate gets a little shaky when applied to the divine context.  While a king’s benevolent display of generosity to a person in need may be called “mercy” in a human sense (particularly a royal sense), it is not so in the divine sense that we find in Christianity and many other religions.  The ancient Greeks saw generosity, particularly as it related to hospitality (xenia), as a part of one’s obligation to justices (dikê).  In this sense, the kings’ generosity is not really a gift of something undeserved.  Grace, in the sense of the New Testament Covenant, is about pardoning of debt, and so this model of generosity does not suffice to entirely reconcile grace with justice in the way that Christianity demands.

Another take on reconciling grace and justice can be found in David Kaylor’s article, “The Concept of Grace in the Hymns of Nammalvar.”  In his article, Kaylor examines whether grace is, in the Tiruvaymoli, spontaneous or a response to human devotion and deeds.  Kaylor concludes that grace is primarily spontaneous but submits that there is evidence for both cases found in Hindu literature.  Kaylor maintains, however, that all references to grace as a merited gift (that is grace, not in the Christian sense, but in a sense which excludes the undeserved aspect of it) are doxological rather than exhortative in their essential meaning, and therefore are less applicable as formal doctrine.  In many ways, this entirely spontaneous nature of grace is similar to Calvin’s formulation, where grace, while not entirely spontaneous, is at least mysterious and entirely unrelated to human acts.  However, the most essential element missing from this model is justice.  Obviously there are very formidable dogmas of justice all throughout Hindu traditions, but there is no instance of reconciliation between it and grace.  For this, we must turn to Christianity.

In Jesus Christ we find a means by which God, who is entirely just in nature, pardons sin without infringing on the integrity of his justice.  Because of God’s just nature, man’s sin should result in his metaphysical inability to remain in God’s presence, but this debt is paid through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, by which absolute justice is expressed simultaneously with absolute love.  From this model of reconciliation between justice and love should naturally flow, I think, the Christian reconciliation of covenant theology.  As we begin to understand, to some small degree, the kind of infinite love that God has for us and the sacrifice he makes for us, works follow naturally (as Calvin would have it), but also, as we begin to do better works and imitate Christ’s love, we begin to understand that love better (as the Calvinists would have it).  Hence, the two covenants of covenant theology perpetuate each other.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a twentieth century theologian, wrote in his book The Cost of Discipleship, “only those who believe obey, … and only those who obey believe” (Bonhoeffer 20).

As beautiful and unique as this doctrine is as a whole, it is also important to note that no part of it is found exclusively in Christianity; it is, rather, the manner in which all of the elements are combined that is unique to Christianity.  We need look no further than our own Indo-European language to find the origin of most of the components of the doctrine.  For example, the concept of a saviour who heals a large group of people from an ill brought on by misbehaviour can be linked to the ancient Greek concept of a soter, from which we get the word “saviour” and even the Christian theological word “soteriology.”  The theme of death and resurrection if also a ubiquitous part of world religions, an example being Adonis (on which, see C. S. Lewis, Miracles).  And of course, grace and justice are scattered all across other religions we have already referenced in this essay. But what is unique about Christian grace is that it is the culmination of each of these principles in a way that pieces them all together.  The fact that the component parts of Christianity are so deeply engrained in human thought should come as no surprise to us; indeed, as academics and humanists, we are required to expect human thought to be true, and so the fact that it is filled with the make up of Christianity gives Christianity all the more merit.

Works Cited

  • Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1998. Print.

“Did the Writers of the New Testament Get Their Picture of Jesus Right?”  Did the Writers of the New Testament Get Their Picture of Jesus Right? N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2013.

<http://www.christianity.co.nz/grace-13.htm&gt;.

Grottanelli, Cristiano.  “The King’s Grace and the Helpless Woman: A Comparative Study of the Stories of Ruth, Charila, Sita.”  History of Religions 22.1 (1982): 1-24. Web.  April 17 2013.

Kaylor, David R. “The Concept of Grace in the Hymns of Nammalvar.”  Journal of the American Academy of Religion 44.4 (1976):  Web.  April 17 2013.

Mackinnon, Malcolm H. “Part I: Calvinism and the Infallible Assurance of Grace: The Weber Thesis Reconsidered.”  The British Journal of Sociology 39.2 (1988): 143-177.  Web.  April 17 2013.

The Great Rebellion

Here’s my Christmas post for this year.

When playing a musical instrument in an orchestra, it is not uncommon that the director give you and your fellow musicians one piece of criticism and follow it immediately with a critique that seems directly opposite.  He might, for example, say that he wants the trumpets to play louder, and the very next moment, he’ll be upset with them for overpowering the strings.  In these sorts of situations, it is understood by good ensemble musicians that the director is in the right, and it is almost implied that the trumpets have done something very insensitive even though they were just trying to follow his orders.  What he really wants is not for one particular section to mindlessly play louder or softer throughout the whole piece, but for all the players to balance and blend, which is something much more complicated than a single adjustment in volume.  Instead, good balance requires sensitive musicianship and a profound understanding of the nuances of the piece.

While he is trying to communicate this delicate concept, an orchestra director also has to be mindful of accessibility.  He is usually dealing with an overwhelming sum of people, all of whom come from different backgrounds and have different philosophies of music.  So he is compelled to use the simplest language possible in order to effectively communicate what he wants the group to do.  This is what makes him seem to suffer from multiple personality disorder at times–his task is very difficult.  Indeed, if one is to attempt to explain musicianship to a large group of people in concrete, layman’s terms, he is almost doomed to come very near to contradicting himself.  This is not because the art is incoherent, but because it is complicated.

Now suppose someone were to try to explain the meaning of life to the entire world in a way that would serve as its model for ages to come.  Imagine, if you will, that within a single culture, the very structure of reality was to be explained for all peoples.  I don’t suppose there is a more arduous endeavour that could be dreamt of by the human mind.  And yet, this is the very undertaking that we find being fulfilled in God’s Holy Word.  God Himself is explained to us in simple, universal terms. An infinite fractal of the highest order of infinity is embodied in mere words.

It is no surprise, of course, that we find this text to be very much like the frustrating orchestra conductor.  One part tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves, another part tells us to not throw our pearls to the dogs.  In one part, we see the Israelites stoning adulteresses by order of God himself, and in another part, we see Jesus turning the crowd away from such a convict because they themselves are sinners.  For some, this abundance of scriptural inconsistencies can be almost detrimental to the rhetoric of the text.  But as for myself, I find that these seemingly conflicting imperatives make the sacred book all the more powerful and all the more effective.  Life is complicated, and Reality is fractal.  It is utterly unthinkable that a model of Reality could be single dimensional.  As we have discussed elsewhere in this blog, the Omnipotent has a number of necessary qualities: He must be Good because He is categorical, He must be Rational because reason cannot exist by irrational cause, He must be Just because He is Good and Rational, and He must be Loving because He is coherent with His own creation.  However, these qualities present a paradox.  How could God be infinitely Loving and infinitely Just?

The answer is Redemption.  Redemption is a logical necessity to any explanation of Reality, and even people who do not understand the formal proof seem to know this intuitively.  No other religion in the wold besides Christianity has Redemption in it, and yet followers of all religions and anti-religions cannot escape the notion.  They try to sneak it into their doctrines, searching endlessly for a tiny foothold amongst their tightly packed creeds in which they might slide something to fulfil their need for this belief.  However, when the ungrounded rhetoric subsides, it becomes evident that only in Christianity may one find a God of Grace, which is the very thing for which the world so desperately craves.

But how could a single text explain Redemption, this absurd reconciliation of Justice and Love, to the every human being that would ever live?  Well, God does it with a great rebellion.  For ages, He set aside the Israelites as His chosen people, instilling in them a strict system of morals.  He had them kill anyone caught violating one of His rules.  This is how seriously He takes morality.  However, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened.  Soon men and women would not use this rule system as a means to please God, but as a tool to persecute each other and bring themselves power.  So God had to tear down His own temple, and make a mockery of the very system He had instilled (see “The Mockery”).

That’s exactly what He does in the person of Christ.  The powerful Pharisees sat like tyrannical dictators on thrones of self-righteousness, looking down in scorn at the common mass below.  They believed that they were the favoured of God.  They knew His law better than anyone and followed it to the very letter.  But they had entirely missed the point just as the trumpets did when the orchestra director told them to play louder.  God didn’t want robots that simply obeyed rules anymore than the director did.  He wanted human beings with hearts that were filled with His spirit.  So just as the director spurns his players for blindly following orders, so does God his people.  He gave Himself to the world not as a Pharisee of Pharisees, but as a lowly servant–a servant that would overturn all the rules.  He would spit in the ground on the sabbath to heal a blind man, spend his time with unworthy sinners, speak to a Samaritan women at a well, turn over tables in the house of worship, touch a leper, forgive sins, and have the temple curtain torn in half.  When God became man, He undermined His whole hierarchy.  Suddenly, religion wasn’t just for the circumcised Pharisees who sat around contemplating rules, it was for all people.  Jesus was for the dirty prostitutes on the streets–the sinners that had lost all hope of heaven long ago.  He overthrew their sin and overcame the world.

This is how God told us about Grace in a language that all of humanity can understand.  Grace could never have existed without both Justice and Love, because Justice is the very faculty upon which Grace acts, and love the means by which it does so.

Merry Christmas.