Category Archives: faith

Gregory of Nyssa: your spirit is a copy of God

“Since one of the signs of the Divine Nature is its essential incomprehensibility, in this also must the copy be like the original. For were the nature of the copy comprehended, when the original was above comprehension, the copy would be a mistaken one. But, inasmuch as the nature of our spirit is above our understanding, it has here an exact resemblance of the all-sublime, representing by its own unfathomableness the incomprehensible Being of God.” — Gregory of Nyssa, quoted in The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto

According to the Orthodox Church in America, Gregory of Nyssa was “[e]ndowed with philosophical talent” and “saw philosophy as a means for a deeper penetration into the authentic meaning of divine revelation.”

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Christianity superseded the ancient Mithra mystery cult through violence and rationalism

My intended audience consists of the U.S. evangelicals and fundamentalists I’ve known my entire life in various church, school, home-school, and para-ministry circles. 

I’ve previously quoted scholars on the numerous similarities between Christianity and the Mithra mystery cult—similarities uncanny and striking for people who with a conservative, evangelical/fundamentalist perspective.

I’ve also noted, in recent scholarship, the critical consensus seems to be that “Christianity was influenced by the mystery religions of the Greco-Roman world,” according to Paul Hedges.

I hadn’t been looking, but I recently found another presentation of the similarities between the Mithra mystery cult and Christianity—along with a startling analysis of why Christianity carried on while its competitor, so similar, died out.

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across Religious Platonism by James K. Feibleman, who at the time of publication taught at Tulane University.

(The time of the book’s publication is its own quick story. I had been talking to my students about the currency of sources. Feibleman’s book first was published in 1959, and the copy I found was published in 1971. Is the scholarship still current? Probably: A quick search showed a respected academic publisher had reissued Religious Platonism in 2013.)

The subtitle of the 1971 edition is The Influence of Religion on Plato and the Influence of Plato on Religion, so it includes a short section on Mithraism to which I was drawn because of my previous reading. It includes both a list of similarities and a brief history of their relationship.

“There are many features of the Mithraic mysteries which are reminiscent of the Orphic and Dionysiac cults. But the later religion of Christianity shared even more striking parallels with it. The use of the idea of brotherhood, purification by baptism, communion, a Lord’s Supper, a birth of the saviour on December 25th, a sabbath on Sunday, an asceticism of abstinence and continence, a heaven and a hell, a flood early in history, immortality of the soul, a last judgment, a resurrection of the dead, a mediating Logos which was one of a trinity, and many other resemblances which have often been noted. [This last sentence is footnoted to The Mysteries of Mithra by Franz Cumont.]

“After Constantine had proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, Mithraism suffered persecution but returned again under Julian the Apostate (A.D. 331-353). This was its last victory. As soon as the Christians were securely in power, they invoked the same kind of violence against their enemies, chiefly in other religions, especially Mithraism, that those enemies had invoked against them. Mithraism never again achieved the position of power it held in the third century. By the fourth century Christianity was sufficiently entrenched to enable it to do unto others what had been done unto it, and ‘the Christians, in order to render places contaminated by the presence of a dead body ever afterwards unfit for worship, sometimes slew the refractory priests of Mithras and buried them in the ruins of their sanctuaries, now forever profaned’ [Cumont]. The victory of Christianity was arranged through violence and fixed by establishment, won by the sword and made permanent by philosophy. For the fourth century that saw the ruthless destruction of Mithraism by the Christians saw also the adoption of Platonism by St. Augustine.

“The doom of Mithraism and the triumph of Christianity were spelled out in advance in their relations to Platonism. Mithraism had no relations with Greek culture and so was never able to avail itself of the support of rationalism in general and of Platonism in particular. It could not meet the challenge of a rival—and strikingly similar—religion which availed itself of these supports.”

This is all fascinating and frightening. Again, “For the fourth century that saw the ruthless destruction of Mithraism by the Christians saw also the adoption of Platonism by St. Augustine.”

And, “The doom of Mithraism and the triumph of Christianity were spelled out in advance in their relations to Platonism.” Wow.

Stanley Fish Slashes the Tires of the Humanities

That’s an overly dramatic title, but it sounds like Bonfire of the Vanities.

I always appreciate Stanley Fish’s point of view, even when I don’t agree with him. I think he is on the wrong side of the free-speech debate, but his recent essay, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, has a lot to love and consider.

Wait a sec—in case you don’t know what “the humanities” are, I like a definition from the Stanford Humanities Center, which reads in part:

“The humanities can be described as the study of how people process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world.”

So as much as I like Fish’s recent essay, it is a bit painful for me when he says:

I hate to be the one to tell you, but there is no generalizable benefit to having led a life centered on great texts. It is sometimes thought that those whose careers are spent engaging with beautiful and stringent works of literature and philosophy will become, perhaps by osmosis, better persons than they otherwise would have been. Anyone who believes that hasn’t spent much time in English and philosophy departments.

That last sentence is supposed to be funny, in a darkly humorous way, and it really is.

Fish also analogizes the age-old faith and reason debate with one of the predicaments faced by universities today, that is, whether to continue supporting the humanities at all while demand for science and technology training grows. After considering some of the justifications for the humanities, he writes:

This line of humanities justification has taken many forms, usually involving pointed distinctions between body and soul, letter and spirit, techne and art. A number of famous debates — between Thomas Huxley and Matthew Arnold, C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, Alan Sokal and the editors of Social Text — participate in a long conversation between those who believe that science and the scientific method provide the way both to knowledge and the betterment of mankind, and those who believe that without the informing spirit of the humanistic perspective, scientific knowledge is a dead letter. (One can see this opposition in all of its variety as a subset of the larger, perdurable opposition between reason and faith.)

Just for clarity, the parenthetical comment is his. Considering these broad tensions sometimes described as sciences versus humanities, take a look at theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s questioning of the tension between Athens and Jerusalem.

My excerpts here could be misleading, taken by themselves, because Fish believes in the humanities and loves them. The question is whether they can be defended from the outside, or only from within. (Sometimes people will say, for example, a religion is internally coherent, yet open to external critique.)

While I don’t want to “side” with Fish against anyone I know in the digital humanities (and while I didn’t previously quite understand “digital humanities” in the way Fish describes), I really loved this helpful, insightful, foundational humanistic perspective within his critique of the digital humanities:

Think of puffs of smoke seen on a distant ridge; they could be just puffs of smoke, they could be smoke signals. How do you know? Not by just looking at them; it is only when you are persuaded—not by the data but by extratextual information—that a particular someone has designed the sequence that you will ask what message that someone might have wanted to send. Interpretation can’t get started without the prior identification of an intentional agent, and brute data, no matter how it is sliced and diced, cannot produce that identification by itself. 

I take that to mean, humanities people understand or are persuaded—in numerous situations and through numerous media—someone is trying to send a message, and that message should be comprehended and evaluated. If you and I give time and effort to intentional messages, are we acting in mere faith?

Soren Kierkegaard on Being Completely Sure of the Christian Faith

“No, away, pernicious sureness. Save me, O God, from ever being completely sure; keep me unsure until the end so that then, if I receive eternal blessedness, I might be completely sure that I have it by grace! It is empty shadowboxing to give assurances that one believes that it is by grace—and then to be completely sure. The true, the essential expression of its being by grace is the very fear and trembling of unsureness. There lies faith—as far, just as far, from despair and from sureness.”

— “Resurrection of the Dead,” in Christian Discourses (1848), by Søren Kierkegaard  (Hong & Hong translation)

I first discovered part of this excerpt thanks to a post on the Søren Kierkegaard and Christian Existentialism Facebook page.

Globally, Women Are More Likely Than Men to be Religious, Pew Research Center Data Says

Women are more likely to be religious, and among atheists, women are the minority, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center.

The first two of these three graphics are based upon surveys of men and women, ages 20 or older, in 192 countries:
 
Women more likely than men to be affiliated
 
Women make up the majority of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and an unidentified selection of smaller religious groups:
 
Religiously affiliated more likely to be female
 
The United States is sometimes maligned as a religious, patriarchal nation. To the maligners: Why are so many patriarchs atheists and so many matriarchs believers? No one in the U.S. makes a free adult get out of bed on a Sunday morning, and no one makes a free adult hold faith-in-a-higher-power as a background belief. See the graphic below, and consider the population numbers and cultural diversity represented by the listed nations:
 
Atheists more likely to be men in several countries

Should You Perceive Meaning in Nature?

If humans can manipulate some aspect of nature—in other words, if humans find a way to perform godlike miracles with the building blocks of, say, biology—does that mean whatever’s manipulable has no meaning? And, implicitly, has no divine origin? Along those lines, I recently found a quotation from one of the Inklings, and I thought the idea was worth wrestling with.

In the 1970s, Owen Barfield—a close friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien— wrote: “Amid all the menacing signs that surround us in the middle of this twentieth century, perhaps the one which fills thoughtful people with the greatest sense of forboding is the growing sense of meaninglessness. It is this which underlies most of the other threats. How is it that the more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it?”

Isolate the assumption in that question and convert it into a statement: “The more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it.”

I’m inclined to agree, probably because I’ve read enough of Lewis to get an inevitable splash of Barfield, but how true is that statement, really? Is it true often enough, generally enough?

Probably, but then why?

Maybe the more “we” (some group within the human race) find nature manipulable, the more we assume its value is reducible. In other words, maybe humans once assumed nature was set by God in some inviolable way, and when we realized we could manipulate it, suddenly nature seemed violable, therefore less valuable, less absolute, less a reflection of divinity.

The more it can be manipulated, we assume (perhaps unconsciously), the less it must be a creation of a divine power, and if something has less value, it seems to mean less (the way value is applied and understood and designated is a lot to think about). If some divinity made nature, why would mere mortals be able to mess with it?

But along those lines, the ability to manipulate is not a simple either-or situation. It has matters of degree. Should our ability to manipulate nature (a big, abstract ability) be any more surprising than our ability to make a salad from wild vegetables? To make a shelter from trees and branches?

But then there’s that popular Internet meme: “The sciences can tell you how to clone a T-Rex. The humanities can tell you why that might not be a good idea.”

At any rate, I’m not sure Barfield was precisely correct in the above quotation. It could be that, on a popular level, certain assumptions about nature, science, and progress became “viral” before the Internet was part of our daily lives. (Late evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer, decades before the Internet, once suggested that Americans get their opinions like they catch cold viruses—they’re not sure where they got those opinions, but they certainly got them.) So certain assumptions—and maybe inclinations of attitude—made Western people less likely to perceive meaning, but maybe not less able. Not less able, just less inclined.

Furthermore, whether from a metaphysical point of view or a naturalistic point of view, wouldn’t nature have to be meaningful?

Donald Trump as faith healer and televangelist

I should, and I will, skip an attempt at the underlying meaning behind 33 percent of South Carolina evangelicals voting for Donald Trump.

Instead, I’ll repeat part of Sarah Posner’s plausible analysis on the Washington Post‘s Acts of Faith blog.

“Trump is arguably the candidate most resembling a televangelist.

“For many evangelicals, Pentecostals and charismatic Christians, magical thinking has found its expression through the prosperity gospel, much to the consternation of Christians who consider it a heresy and a fraud. A uniquely American contribution to the evolution of Christianity in the modern age, the prosperity gospel teaches that God wants believers to be rich.

“It’s also called the health and wealth gospel: Its adherents believe that God blesses the faithful with great wealth, keeps their health robust and cures the faithful of every malady. Successful televangelists boast of revelations received directly from God and of their ability to produce miracles….

“Despite countless exposés of prosperity televangelists’ excesses — including Creflo Dollar’s pleas for his followers to fund his $60 million Gulfstream airplane, Benny Hinn’s phony faith healings, and Kenneth Copeland’s luxurious homes, cars and planes — televangelism still thrives in America. It is, according to the scholar Kate Bowler, who wrote a book about it, ‘one of the most popular forms of American Christianity.’ It has permeated evangelical culture, through television, megachurches, conferences and books that are found not just in Christian bookstores but also at the checkout line at supermarkets and in airports…..

“Copeland’s television program is called ‘The Believer’s Voice of Victory.’ Winning. Copeland was one of a roomful of televangelists who laid hands on Trump last year, thanking God ‘for a bold man, a strong man and an obedient man’….

“Trump draws his most significant support from voters who make less than $50,000 a year. He has led them to believe that only a rich, successful entertainer can make America great again. Like a televangelist, Trump’s success is seen as evidence of his prowess, but even more important, of God’s good favor. His supporters seem to believe, too, that he will bring them along for the ride.”

I really like Posner’s idea of affiliation: If I affiliate myself with the prosperity-preaching televangelist, I’ll get close, closer, to the faith I need to succeed. If I affiliate myself with a wealthy businessman, I’ll get close, closer, to the mojo I need to succeed.

And, after reading that, if you ever had any doubt that Kenneth Copeland is a fraud, well, all doubts should now be gone.

I mean, in the context of Posner’s post, Copeland only called Trump “obedient” after receiving a nice donation.

Meanwhile, I’ve been posting a spelling pun on social media today—”Donald Trump: Make America Grate Again”—only to be informed by a former newsroom colleague that an editorial cartoonist got there first. Dang it.