Luther, Augustine, Paul and Peter (no, not that one…)

In Robert Sapolsky’s lecture on the biological underpinnings of religion (which I strongly recommend), one of the cases he talks of is that of a young monk called Luder, who from his correspondence clearly suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Luder is, of course, better known by us as Martin Luther, and Sapolsky goes on to suggest that Luther’s theology at least in part stems from his psychological condition.

It is reasonably easy to see that Luther’s insistence on “sola gratia” (grace alone) and his dismissal of any form of “works righteousness” could stem from OCD, which is characterised by never managing to do enough to meet the standards one has set for oneself. Luther was so against works righteousness, indeed, that he wanted at one point to remove the letter of James from the Bible (calling it a “gospel of straw”); James, of course, contains the statement “faith without works is dead”.

I open with Luther largely because we are remembering the 500th anniversary of him flyposting a church door. I would say “celebrating”, but that would imply that I thought highly of Luther; while I appreciate “priesthood of all believers” and opposition to the hierarchy of the Church and its failings, such as indulgences, there is far too much more about him which I shudder at, and what I think is his attempt to impose his OCD on the whole of Christianity ranks fairly high among them.

Luther followed in the footsteps of Augustine, who, some centuries earlier, had developed one of the concepts which Luther, as an obsessive-compulsive, would find so attractive, that of “original sin”. Luther appropriated the concept wholesale.

Augustine, of course, wrote at length in his “Confessions” about his problems with sex, notably his apparent inability to do without it, at least until his conversion. The first (and perhaps foundational) peccadillo he records is, however, stealing some fruit. “There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night—having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was—a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree.  We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden.”(from Confessions, quoted by Hugh Kerr in “Readings in Christian Thought”).  From this, he formulated the idea that we were all driven by an irresistible urge to “sin”, which could only be negated by conversion.

Now personally, I do remember my early teens, and the occasional impulse to do things just because they were forbidden – but then I grew up, and that urge disappeared. I fancy most of us are rebellious as teenagers, and have similar urges, but then again I fancy most of us do not regard a “do not walk on the grass” sign as demanding that we do just that once we have reached, say, 20 or so. Well, maybe 30 or 40 for some people I know… Similarly, teenagers frequently seem to be endowed with overactive sex drives; I hesitate to suggest that Augustine might have gone beyond that into an actual addiction, but similarly most people I know grow out of that.

Has Augustine, I wonder, formulated his “original sin” theology (and the Western Church’s fixation on sexual sin) out of his own psychology, rather than (for instance) out of a more general anthropology than that of the sex-mad teenager? I suppose he was encouraged in his direction of thought by St. Paul, and most particularly by Romans 7.

Paul there talks of an inability to do what he wants to do (namely follow the Law assiduously), and generalises from that, just as Augustine does later, to a concept of “sin living within him” (which elsewhere he suggests can be dispelled completely by faith in Christ or, on another reading, by the faith of Christ). Again, however, I ask whether this is a general problem. While Paul does elsewhere boast of being blameless in respect of the Law, he goes on in Romans to paint the Law as something which no-one can adhere to completely and therefore as something which actually, in one sense, produces sin.

This is however problematic; not only does Paul suggest in Philippians that he in fact is entirely Torah-observant, but I have discussed this at length with many Orthodox Jewish friends who say there is no real difficulty in adhering to the Law scrupulously. Indeed, they point out to me the principle of a “fence around the Torah”, so they add to the number of restrictions in order not even to come close to breaking one of the 613 commandments which the Rabbis have extracted from the text, and the ultra-Orthodox go even further, trying to be super-observant in every particular. As they comment, this is a way of expressing their gratitude to God for his covenant with the Jewish people. Peter Enns discusses Paul and Augustine (and Adam) in this recent podcast.

Judaism, of course, has no concept of “original sin”, but considers that everyone has within them a good and an evil impulse or inclination, the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra. This is a far cry from a fundamental inability to do good (or be law-abiding). One is tempted to speculate that the “thorn in his flesh” which Paul complains of elsewhere might have been OCD, though there have been many other speculations. OCD would certainly be, within Paul’s way of thinking which personified powers working against us as demonic, a good candidate, while physical ailments would not be.

That represents three giants of western theology who, I think, there are good grounds for suspecting of creating a general theology out of their own specific psychological quirks (to avoid using the term “abnormal psychology” with its pejorative connotations). Now, if (as Freud, one of the “masters of suspicion”, suggested) Christianity stems from a kind of pre-scientific attempt at therapeutic psychological intervention, these might represent valid but partial theologies; theologies tailored to particular psychologies. I have mentioned elsewhere, for instance, that while Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a theological device which I find deeply abhorrent, it is the only atonement theory which seems to resonate with a particular set of people, largely among the recovery communities, who have done things which they regard as fundamentally unforgiveable; I do not think it should ever be advanced to the more average believer as “the gospel”. However, we are not commonly offered the option of original sin and total depravity as being “special cases”; they are supposed to be universal theologies applicable to everyone. And they fail in this, as not everyone is a sex-obsessed adolescent, an addict or a sufferer from OCD.

There is, however, a strain of theology now popular in various flavours which (inter alia) often uses the psychological insights of Jacques Lacan, a controversial French Psychoanalyst of the last century. Peter Rollins is the exponent of such a theology (“Pyrotheology”) with whom I am most familiar, but Tad DeLay and Marcus Pound are two other well known examples. These insights, one might think, would be of general application. Psychoanalysis is, after all, supposed to analyse the psyche of all of us, not just those with particular psychological quirks…

Unfortunately, in much the same way as Freud decided that humanity was collectively obsessed with the penis (“A thing’s a phallic symbol if it’s longer than it’s wide, and the id goes marching on…”), Lacan considers that everyone is afflicted by the perceived loss of an original oceanic onness with one’s mother, which is not a loss at all, in reality, but a side-effect of the advent of the sense of self. This is always “self as distinct from the other”, because that’s how we think. To that extent, I think he’s right, though I also think that it is a real loss; the sense of self as radically connected to and without a fixed and immutable boundary with the rest of existence is something which is, to me at least, extremely desirable (though probably not to the exclusion of the sense of self altogether), but that is one of the gifts of peak mystical experience.

Where this line of thinking goes astray, I think, is to suggest that for everyone, everywhere, we strive to fill this perceived lack with other things, the something which will “make us whole again”. Rollins is particularly fond of this analysis, especially since going to live in Los Angeles, where everyone seems to him to be touting this or that meditative or contemplative practice, diet or exercise regime as filling the void, assuming for a moment that they realise that the pursuit of more money isn’t going to do that. Indeed, he criticises mainstream religion as proffering something to fill that lack – and much of Christianity would seem to agree with him, talking of the “God-shaped hole”. David Moffett-Moore says, in “Christian Existentialism” (Energion Publications, 2017) “It could be said that the psychology of Sigmund Freud is most relevant for us as young adults, when we are most strongly influenced by our hormones. Our sexuality is a strong part of our sense of self. The writings of Alfred Adler on the quest for power may be most appropriate for our middle years, when we are striving to pursue our careers and establish our families. Carl Jung says that every issue past midlife is essentially a spiritual issue, a question of meaning. So we can benefit by applying Freud to our younger years, Adler to our middle years, and Jung to our later years.” Psychologies are being applied there to those who fit the psychological profiles they are based on; I wonder whether a theology should similarly be based on individual quirks.

With Pyrotheology, I’m on less solid ground than in suggesting that theology for the OCD, for teenage rebels or the sexually obsessed is not capable of being a theology for all, because I suspect that a very great deal of human activity is exactly that, searching for something to fill a perceived lack in one’s own self. Again, that doesn’t well describe me; I wasn’t particularly looking for any magic solution to the problem of life, the universe, and everything (aside, of course, 42) up to my early teens, and when my initial peak unitive experience happened, that was exactly what I was looking to repeat – and unlike the Lacan/Rollins model, where the “lost thing” was never really lost, I knew full well that that particular gap could be filled, because it had been. However, I have not found very many people who testify to such peak experience (though many who testify to something rather less complete), and I concede that on that point, Rollins is probably talking of at least a majority experience (at least on the basis of the population of Los Angeles) and so may reasonably be advancing a theology of general application, even if it is not one which mystics can endorse.

That, however, is not the only major feature of Rollins’ Pyrotheology project. That carries the “lack” motif rather further, and proposes a theology of accepting a state of permanent unease, permanent dissatisfaction. He repeats with approval the Augustinian desire-as-created-by-prohibition (which I think Paul also preached in his theologising about Law and Faith), and carries that further in approving the rebel (who when asked “What are you against?” replies “What have you got?”) as against the revolutionary, who sees a fault in current systems and seeks to replace them with something better.

Now, I am much more a revolutionary than a rebel. I don’t believe in tearing things down unless I can propose something better to erect in their place, as a general rule, and I like to use the SMART system for tasks – they should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-limited. Some of my readers will be astonished at me advancing such apparently conservative (with a small “c”) concepts, but I have always identified as a centrist – it’s just that the world appears to have shifted around me while I stay sceptical and critical, but against destruction for destruction’s sake.

Most people, I find, can relate to this viewpoint. The more conservative among us like the reluctance to endorse change for the sake of change (and, to my mind, the world is already changing at a rate which is too rapid for human wellbeing), the not-completely-radical appreciate the scepticism and critical approach but can get behind my wish for concrete solutions and, to be honest, moving by small increments rather than vast leaps into the unknown. I’m not against paradigm shift in principle, but such changes should happen no more than once a generation, and my generation has, frankly, already had its fill.

So, on balance, I think Rollins’ Pyrotheology is also a project which has application only to a relatively small percentage of the population, namely those who have preserved the adolescent tendency to rebellion. That may be a good thing, may be a bad thing; I have a sneaking suspicion that with the pace of change in the world as it is, it may be more good than bad. It cannot, however, be an universally applicable theology.

But then, I would argue, neither can the theologies of Luther, Augustine or even Paul.

Burned by Pyrotheology

(This post was actually written in around November 2016, but for some reason, probably because I wanted to polish it, not published at the time.)

I’ve engaged with Peter Rollins characterisation of what he describes as the “oceanic” experience which is a fundamental feature of mystical experience as a feature of psychosis before, but have just listened to him talk about this again, in which (describing his “Pyrotheology”) he describes the ontological and ontic lack as “original sin”, and have some further thoughts.

The first of these is that he is maybe not a million miles from my own characterisation of original sin, which I wrote about in “The Fall and Rise of Original Sin”, and “Falling Further”. We are both, it seems to me, talking about “original sin” as something formative of the self (or, in his words, the subject). Where we differ is that I see specifically self-consciousness as being the issue, whereas he sees lack as being the issue. I am actually unconvinced by Lacan’s identification of the dawn of self-awareness as equivalent to losing the “oceanic” sense of oneness with the “other”; I think, for instance, that most higher animals are well aware of their individuality without possessing (in at least the majority of cases) a real sense of themselves as a subject of scrutiny; there is no real feedback loop going on there, whereas there is in the case of humans, and it is that sense of self-as-subject which I identify as the source of “original sin” – the discrepancy between the actual self and the self-image we have of ourselves.

However, we both view this as something positive rather than something negative.

I do see him as being unduly dismissive of the mystical/oceanic experience of ultimate oneness as being merely transitory and, perhaps, nice while it lasts but ultimately of no real importance beside what he sees as the vital task of coping with the awful fact that we are separate from the world around us. Being a mystic (and impacted by the self-verifying character of mystical experience) I have little option but to see the experience of oneness with all, the dissolution of the boundaries which constitute us as a “self” or “subject” as being in some way “more true” than the experience of us as separate; at the very least, as equally true. Becauser I am at root a mystic, I value religious traditions first and foremost for their mystical traditions and their technologies of promoting mystical experience; Pete’s conception of radical theology is that it ignores this and concentrates on the complete absence of such experience, which he clearly regards as “more true”, and indeed seems to me to denigrate any attempt by religion to offer mystical oneness as something to be desired.

I think that is a mistake, and abandons a very large amount of what makes religion worthwhile. In particular, there is nothing in his version of radical theology which specifically promotes compassion, “loving your neighbour as yourself”. To use the terminology of AA (of which Pete is fond, in general terms) and the other 12 step programmes, while Pyrotheology is big on Step 1 (“we admitted that we were powerless over X and that our lives had become unmanageable”) it is not particularly conducive to Step 2 (“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could relieve our insanity”) or Step 3 (“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him”); in terms of the Serenity Prayer, it maybe covers “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change” without addressing “And the power to change the things we can”.

It is very difficult not to love your neighbour as yourself when the boundary of what is your neighbour and what is yourself is nonexistent (in the fullblown mystical experience) or, to say the least, fuzzy (in the case of the partial consciousness of oneness which can be cultivated as a day-to-day and near constant experience by mystical practice). Some mystics, I confess, do seem to achieve this lack of concern for neighbour – I was a little horrified to hear, some years ago in a TV programme, a Hindu sage refuse to teach a westerner because it might damage their own consciousness of oneness with God (in that case, the unity of Atman and Brahman). It is not uncommon, as well, to find mystics separating themselves from humanity (as, for instance, monks or hermits) in order more fully to pursue mystical experience, I suspect partly because the overwhelming sense of compassion produced when in contact with other human beings, coupled with a limited or nonexistent ability to do anything much about it, is too distracting or too painful. Most modern mystics, however, seem to find a balance in which they can and do express love of neighbour, sometimes profusely – and if there is any message which stresses love of neighbour to the eventual exclusion of self-preservation, it is that of Jesus (“greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”).

Of course the complete removal of any sense of division between the self and the rest of existence is not something which can be pursued except for very limited periods – it is completely impossible to function normally in the world with no such sense; as I tend to say, this results in you walking into lamp posts. It is, as Pete says, both wonderful and extremely scary (the end point has to be the complete extinguishing of the self). You have to return to the normal existence of distinguishing yourself from, for instance, the lamp post which you are, in the throes of a peak mystical experience, about to walk in to, or at least you do if you want to continue functioning as an individual in the world at large.

This brings to mind the fact that, to me, perhaps the most fundamental aspect of human thinking is the distinguishing of one thing from another. Thinking back to my school days, titles starting “compare and contrast” were perhaps the most common essays ever asked for. We define our political leanings, I find, more by what we are not than by what we are (in the recent US election, I could not under any circumstances have voted for Trump, therefore I would probably have had to vote for Hilary, despite her espousal of neoliberalism and closeness to banks and big business). A key saying in the development of Rabbinic Judaism was the phrase “not as the gentiles” when considering what being Jewish was about; Christianity in its turn moved rapidly away from Judaism having decided that Judaism was one thing which it “was not” (alongside paganism, inter alia).

The trouble with distinguishing the one from the other is that it inevitably sets up a binary opposition – both “contrast” and “compare” involve, unless we are very careful, value judgments as to which is preferable. Even if we are very careful, we run the risk of being accused of moral equivalence. We lose sight of the fact that (as the Taoist logo of two interlocked tadpole shapes, one black and one white, but each with an “eye” of the other colour) drives home, that each of a pair of “opposites” depends on and to some extent includes its opposite, and we fail to appreciate “excluded middle” fallacies. We also, in going binary (i.e. digital), lose the ability to “think analog”, i.e. appreciate that a massive amount of what we perceive is more spectral than divided; one thing shades into another without any clear division between the two.

Some strains of radical theology and the continental philosophy from which much of it stems do this to excess – not a million miles from Pete’s train of thought are thinkers who say that there is a fundamental rift in the structure of existence. This, to me, is the language of conflict, of opposition, and not of love and inclusion.

Opposition to such binaries is something which was picked up in a talk I recently heard by Richard Rohr (this link is to an interview with similar content). He sees the Trinity as an opportunity to break this binary thinking via the concept of perichoresis, which is something like “mutual indwelling” (analagous to the Taoist symbol); he sees Trinity as indicating that relationship is fundamental, rather than distinction. Rohr is, of course, a mystic, and I generally find it difficult to argue much with mystics. On this occasion, however, while I think that if you already have a concept of Trinity as fundamental to your understanding of God, Rohr’s meditation is a very good one, I do not think that a trinitarian concept is necessary to get away from the binaries and the “either/or” mentality. I also think that it leads to all sorts of conceptual problems, not to mention about half the heresies ever identified by the Church!

But I do think that mystical practice gets away from binary opposition. The essence of much mystical writing is “both/and”; the distinction of self and other is real, but so is the identity of self and other – and while it may be impossible to conceive both at the same time rationally (digitally), the mystic is forced to feel that both are simultaneously correct.

But it isn’t psychosis. Sorry, Pete!


Sheep and goats

Adam Eriksen has written an interesting post about the Matthew 25 sorting into the sheep and the goats, in which he advances the thesis that salvation is there understood in the traditional way in which it was understood in the Hebrew Scriptures, namely as a collective salvation, something which happens to a nation rather than to the individual.

This is a deeply uncomfortable reading. I can largely control what I do myself, but my ability to influence what my nation does is extremely limited; my ability to influence what my town did was very limited even when I was a member of the town council, and I am much further from any means of influence in terms of national government than I was as a town council member. OK, I did have a year as mayor, during which I did have much more power to influence, as people listened to the mayor, but even then it was a power to influence rather than the power to implement.

However, if my nation is judged and condemned in the way Eriksen suggests may be happening (or about to happen) in the USA, one thing of which I can be certain is that the individuals making up the nation will suffer.

I don’t know about you, but personally I have a rooted objection to suffering as a result of what someone else does, when it’s something I would never have done myself and have argued strongly against (or voted against). There is, however, a powerful example of this in my own country at the moment. We voted (by a rather narrow margin) for Brexit. I can’t help feeling that the most major factor behind this was a wish NOT to welcome the stranger, i.e. to limit immigration, which is one of the categories which the Hebrew prophets (and the Law) was most adamant should be cared for. Admittedly, by a fairly considerable margin we also voted, a little earlier and then again a little later, for a set of representatives (members of parliament) who did not personally support Brexit, but our government is taking the view that “the people have spoken” and we have to leave the EU, and has invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which more or less guarantees that this will happen. And we will be judged, and will suffer. Notably, we will have to pay a large amount (the current figure stands at around £50 billion) as a “divorce settlement”, money which could have reversed the cuts to benefits and have funded the NHS and social provision adequately for several years, whereas the NHS is currently horribly stretched and social provision is being cut left right and centre, plus, under Mrs. May’s current proposals, paying for another two years worth of membership in something which we will have no further say in. In addition, economists are, on balance, predicting that Brexit will produce a drop in our GNP of 2-5% (some argue that it will be larger), and several large employers are leaving the country, and no doubt more will follow. The government’s response to this (which will severely affect their income from taxes) will assuredly be more austerity, more cuts to benefits, NHS and social care, and a country heading for more of exactly the failure to provide for the poor, the sick and the marginalised.

“Not my government, not my prime minister” sounds hollow – and it buys no tins to put in the food bank (prior to the narrow win of the Conservatives in 2010, there was no food bank locally, and probably little need for it – and I still have some animosity toward the party which I supported and stood as a candidate for for some 40 years, the Liberal Democrats, for supporting them in 2010-15).

The trouble is, it isn’t just Brexit which could precipitate a judgment on us. We are also very strongly linked with the USA economically and in foreign policy – it has been said of our economics that if America catches a cold, Britain has pneumonia – and we will also suffer if the USA suffers as a result of any of the matters which Eriksen raises. Most notably, we are militarily linked with a nation currently headed by as malignant narcissist who seems to have the emotional maturity of a 5 year old, and who could easily precipitate us into global conflict (insofar as we are not already in a global conflict with radical Islam). A malignant narcissist, what is more, who republishes material from our home-grown extreme right hate group, Britain First (who exemplify rather a lot of the traits for which nations can be judged), but claims to be “the leader of the free world”. While Mrs. May has criticised his use of Britain First’s material, she has not cancelled a state visit, and she has not taken steps to draw back from our uncritical support of American actions in world politics (and particularly the Middle East), which have generally been called a “special relationship”.

Not my President, not my leader of the free world, and not someone I think my country should have any dealings with. Let me put it in a way Adam Eriksen would probably balk at. If you lie down with pigs, you will end up covered in shit.

Or, of course, judged in an apocalypse…