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The Celebration of Ignorance

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One of the great joys of my life is watching speeches and interviews given by great intellectuals. It was in pursuing this pleasure that I happened upon an episode of the ABC’s panel discussion show, Question and Answers. Coming out of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, the four people on the panel – the traditional conservative, Peter Hitchens; the feminist writer, Germaine Greer; the American writer, Hanna Rosin; and the gay rights activist, Dan Savage – spent an hour discussing tops ranging from western civilisation to modern hook-up culture.

It became quickly apparent that the intellectual stature of the four panellists was not evenly matched. Hanna Rosin and Dan Savage were less rational, less mature, and more ignorant than Peter Hitchens and Germaine Greer. By comparison, Hitchens and Greer gave carefully considered answers to most of the questions asked. Hitchens, in particular, gave responses based on careful consideration, rational thought, fact, and wisdom. (This is not to say one is required to agree with him)

It was the behaviour of the audience that proved the most alarming, however. Like most Questions and Answers audiences, it was comprised mostly of idealistically left-wing youth. Their primary purpose for being there was to have their ideological presuppositions reinforced. With no apparent motivation to listen to the answers to their questions, these youngsters would clap and cheer like trained seals whenever someone makes an ideologically-correct statement.

How has our society become so stupid? Why do we no longer see being wise and knowledgeable as virtues in and of themselves? Part of the answer comes from a culture of self-hate and contempt promulgated by left-wing intellectuals. Accordingly, Christianity is regarded as archaic (unless, of course, it promotes left-wing beliefs), inequality is caused by capitalism, and the problems of women come as the result of the “patriarchy.” Even the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge are rather conveniently blamed on “trauma” emanating from the Vietnam War (rather than the actions of Pol Pot and his band of murderous, communist brutes).

This continuous, unrelenting assault on Western civilisation has led to a general estrangement from Western culture. The common people have been robbed of their inheritance because scholars and intellectuals have reduced their culture into a caricature to be dismantled at will. As a result, they are no longer exposed to the great works of art, architecture, literature, music, philosophy, poetry, sculpture, theology, and theatre that the Western world has produced.

The modern proclivity for ignorance and stupidity comes out of a very special kind of arrogance. It is the kind of arrogance that makes people believe that all those who came before them must be dumber than they are. It does not acknowledge that our modern “enlightenment” is built on the works of those who came before us. Our forebears would be dumbfounded to find a world where, despite having greater access to information than anyone else in history, people have closed their minds to learning.

What all this boils down to is a rejection of wisdom. If you believe that all those who came before you are dumber than yourself you are unlikely to believe they have anything worthwhile to contribute. As such, you are unlikely to believe in wisdom as a universal good. As Neel Burton over at Psychology Today pointed out: “in an age dominated by science and technology, by specialisation and compartmentalisation, it [wisdom] is too loose, too grand, and too mysterious a concept.”

We have made phenomenal advancements in all areas of human knowledge. Sadly, our successes have also made us arrogant and self-righteous. If we are to take full advantage of our potential, we need to reignite our cultural past and find the humility to learn from those who went before us.

The War On Christmas

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In 2015, the then-Presidential candidate, Donald Trump (1946 – ) called for a boycott of Starbucks after the famous coffee shop chain failed to include the words “Merry Christmas” on their annual Christmas cups. “Did you read about Starbucks?”, Trump asked a rally in Springfield, Illinois. “No more ‘Merry Christmas’ on Starbucks. Maybe we should boycott Starbucks.”

Two years later, Donald Trump, now President of the United States, doubled down on his pro-Christmas message. Speaking at a Christian Public Policy conference, the President stated:

“We’re getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore. They don’t use the word ‘Christmas’ because it’s not politically correct.”

Trump continued:

“You got to department stores and they’ll say, ‘Happy New Year’, or they’ll say other things and it’ll be red, they’ll have it painted. But they don’t say it. Well, guess what? We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”

The sentiment that there is a War on Christmas designed to push the religious holiday out of public consciousness carries a great deal of validity. Since 2000, the Becket Institute has listed the biggest Christmas scrooges in American public life, giving the worst offenders an ‘Ebenezer award.’

In 2000, city manager of Eugene, Oregon, Jim Johnson was given the Ebenezer Award after he issued a five-page memo banning Christmas trees from any “public space” in the city.

In 2011, the Ebenezer Award was given to the United States Post Office after they enforced a policy preventing people from singing Christmas carols on Government property. This decision stands in direct contradiction to Benjamin Franklin’s (1706 – 1790) (their founder) commandment to “always live jollily; for a good conscience is a continual Christmas.”

In 2014, the City of Sioux Falls was given the Ebenezer Award after they threatened to repaint and censor snowploughs that featured artwork celebrating the religious nature of Christmas.

In 2015, the Ebenezer Award was given to the Department of Veteran Affairs after they banned their employees at their Salem, Virginia facility from saying ‘Merry Christmas.’

The problem is not unique to the United States, either. During an interview with 2GB Radio, Peter Dutton (1970 – ), Australia’s minister for immigration and border protection, became incensed after a caller informed him that there had not been any Christmas carols in a performance at his grandchild’s school. The caller informed Dutton that the school in question, Kerdon State High School, had replaced the lyric “we wish you a Merry Christmas” with “we wish you a happy holiday.” Dutton replied: “You make my blood boil with these stories. It is political correctness gone mad and I think people have just had enough of it.”

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I believe that the drive to remove the more traditional and religious aspects from holidays like Christmas and Easter is indicative of a larger attempt to abolish the influence of Christianity on society and culture.

The problem with this, needless to say, is that it is akin to chopping down a tree and still wishing to enjoy its fruits. It is not possible to enjoy the fruits of Western culture and civilisation when its ideological origins and overarching philosophical-cum-theological structures have been removed. Christianity and Western civilisation are inextricably linked. The poet, T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965) wrote in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1943) that “to our Christian heritage we owe many things besides religious faith. Through it we trace the evolution of our arts, through it we have a conception of Roman Law which has done so much to shape the Western world, through it we have our conception of private and public morality.”

The War on Christmas is an attack on the very fabric of Western Civilisation. Christmas symbolises the central axiom our culture was built on: that the Universe was constructed to have a natural and moral order. The War on Christmas is not merely an attack of Judeo-Christian belief, nor is it merely an attack on Western culture, it is an attack upon truth itself.  And the truth cannot prosper while those who believe it are unwilling to defend it.

THE PROTESTANT WORK ETHIC

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This is our weekly theological article.

If there is any philosophical or moral principle that can be credited with the prosperity of the Western capitalist societies it would have to be the Protestant work ethic. This ethic asserts that a person’s success in this life is a visible sign of their salvation in the next. As a result, the Protestant work ethic encourages hard work, self-reliance, literacy, diligence, frugality, and the reinvestment profits.

Prior to the Reformation, not much spiritual stock was placed on labour. The Roman Catholic Church placed more value on monastic prayer than on manual labour. Much would change when the German monk, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of the All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg. Luther railed against the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences as a way of avoiding purgatorial punishment. Luther asserted faith over work believing that a person could be set right with God through faith alone. It was Luther’s opinion that an individual should remain in the vocation God had called them to and should work to earn an income, rather than the accumulation of wealth. This belief stood in stark contrast to the Catholic Church’s philosophy that relief from eternal torment came from Godly rewards for good works. By contrast, the second great Protestant, John Calvin (1509 – 1564), believed that faith and hard work were inextricably linked. Calvin’s theory came from his revolutionary idea of predestination, which asserted that only certain people were called into grace and salvation. It is from this that the Protestant work ethic is borne.

As a consequence, many Protestants worked hard to prove to themselves that they had been preselected for a seat in heaven. A result of this extreme predilection towards hard-work was an increase in economic prosperity.

The French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917), believed that capitalism was built on a system that encouraged a strong work ethic and delayed gratification. Similarly, the German sociologist, Max Weber (1864 – 1920), argued in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) that America’s success boiled down to the Protestant work ethic. It was asserted as the key idea that would encourage individuals to move up the social ladder and achieve economic independence. Weber noted that Protestants – particularly Calvinists, were largely responsible for early twentieth-century business success.

The Protest work ethic is credited with the United States’ economic and political rise in the 19th and 20th centuries. As the political scientist, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859), wrote in Democracy in America (1835):

“I see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on its shore. They will to their descendants the most appropriate habits, ideas, and mores to make a republic.”

A study in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology found that nations with a majority Protestant population enjoyed higher rates of employment. The economist, Horst Feldman, analysed data from eighty countries and found that countries with majority Protestant populations – America, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway – had employment rates six-percent higher than countries where other religious beliefs were practised. (Furthermore, the female employment rate in Protestant countries is eleven-percent higher). Feldman explained how the legacy of Protestantism led to increased prosperity:

“In the early days, Protestantism promoted the virtue of hard and diligent work among its adherents, who judged one another by conformity to this standard. Originally, an intense devotion to one’s work was meant to assure oneself that one was predestined for salvation. Although the belief in predestination did not last more than a generation or two after the Reformation, the ethic of work continued.”

The Protestant work ethic is one of those Christian ideas that have helped create Western capitalist democracies in all their glory. It is yet another example of the influence that Christianity has had on the modern world.

THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVES

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This is our weekly theological article

The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), is one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. His views on metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics have had a profound influence on virtually all philosophical movements that came after him. It was his views on ethics, however, that he is most remembered for.

Kant presented his works on ethics in two works. First, there was The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1785, in which Kant sought to find and establish “the supreme principle of reality.” Then there was The Critique of Practical Reason, published in 1787, which detailed his moral philosophy. (This was the sequel to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1781, in which Kant explored the foundations and limitations of human knowledge.)

Immanuel Kant is one of philosophy’s most ardent defenders of deontological ethics (think of this as the study of duty). Put simply, deontology asserts that it is the motivation behind an action that determines its morality, not its consequences. Kant believed that human freedom was based on the fact that human beings are endowed with a conscience that makes them aware of the power moral law has over them.

Immanuel Kant believed that human morality was based on an absolute and objective moral law that he referred to as the categorical imperative. There are essentially two kinds of imperatives: hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. A hypothetical imperative refers to commands that are conditioned by your own desires. Attending medical school is only imperative if you wish to become a doctor, for example. By contrast, a categorical imperative refers to an unconditional command. You cannot refuse to pay your taxes, for example. Kant believed that moral imperatives were categorical because the individual cannot decide they don’t apply to them.

Kant split his categorical imperative into three maxims:

First: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Put simply, this means that you should not engage in a behaviour unless you are prepared to will that everybody else does it all the time.

Second: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” In other words, it is immoral to manipulate others for any reason whatsoever.

Third: “Act as if you were through your maxim a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.” In other words, you must act as though you are the ultimate moral authority of the universe and that everyone was is duty-bound to emulate everything that you do.

Kant’s moral maxims, therefore, can be summarised in the following way: don’t do something unless you are prepared to tolerate everyone else doing it all the time, never manipulate people, and act as though others are duty-bound to emulate everything you do.

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE BIBLICAL STORIES

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This is our weekly theological article.

The Canadian clinical psychologist, philosopher, and academic, Jordan B. Peterson (1962 – ) has released a 12-part lecture series designed to evaluate the psychological and cultural significance of the Bible. As he explains on his website:

“The Bible is a series of books written, edited and assembled over thousands of years. It contains the most influential stories of mankind. Knowledge of those stories is essential to a deep understanding of  Western culture, which is in turn vital to proper psychological health (as human beings are cultural animals) and societal stability. These stories are neither history, as we commonly conceive it, nor empirical science. Instead, they are investigations into the structure of Being itself and calls to action within that Being. They have deep psychological significance.”

Be warned, these are long lectures, ranging from two-hours-and-twenty-eight minutes to two-hours-and-forty-minutes. Furthermore, much of the subject matter is very deep and complex. However, it is a lecture series that boasts a wealth of practical wisdom and will greatly enlighten the viewer on the cultural and theological heritage of Western civilisation.

You can find the full lecture series here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL22J3VaeABQD_IZs7y60I3lUrrFTzkpat

MEMENTO MORI

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This is our weekly theological article.

For most of my life I have had a great affinity for cemeteries and graveyards. A gentle stroll through the neat and peaceful rows of graves, pausing occasionally to read the inscription on the headstone of someone who lived and died long before I was born has been the source of great pleasure for me.

I believe cemeteries and graveyards are important for two reasons. First, they are incredibly artistic. One cannot help but notice the well-manicured lawns and beautiful gardens, the magnificent sculpting’s of the headstones, and the often-poetic rhetoric of the epitaphs. Second, I believe that cemeteries and graveyards provide people with a physical connection with their cultural heritage and allows them to tap into their ancestral past. As Doctor Celestina Sagazio, a historian working for Melbourne’s Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, observed, cemeteries and graveyards provide a clue into the daily lives of people throughout history.

Modern culture has little time for the contemplation of death. That would go against ‘positive thinking’ and the perpetual lie of ‘eternal youth.’ This, however, stands in stark contrast with the convictions of most of our forebears. From antiquity through to the early twentieth century, the consideration of death was considered a good motivator for leading a virtuous and meaningful life. Recent studies affirm this belief, finding that the contemplation of one’s own mortality acts as a motivator for assessing one’s values and goals and can greatly improve physical health.

The phrase, ‘Memento Mori’, is said to have originated with the Ancient Romans. Tradition in Ancient Rome dictated that a servant or slave should stand behind a triumphant General during his victory parade. This servant or slave would whisper in the General’s ear: “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento Mori!” (“Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!”).

Between the 14th and 17th centuries, the concept of ‘Memento Mori’ took on new motifs. The engraving, ‘The Triumph of Death’ (1539) by Georg Pencz (1500 – 1550) depicted a scythe-wielding skeleton commanding an oxen-driven chariot. Similarly, the dance of death – involving skeletal figures – lead everyone from the Pope to the humble ploughman in a final dance of death. During the 17th and 18th centuries, many New England graves were adorned with epitaphs like ‘Memento Mori’ and ‘Hora Fugit’ (‘the hour flees’) and were emblazoned with images of skulls, bones, winged death’s heads, hourglasses, and other symbols of death and the passage of time.

The Roman stoic philosopher, Seneca (4BC – AD65) advised: “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day… The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” The careful contemplation of mortality and the deliberate awareness of death has a profoundly positive effect on the health and vitality of the soul.

THE SHADOW

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Embedded throughout world religion and mythology is the psychological motif of the shadow.  In the story of the fall of man, the shadow is symbolised in the snake that tempts Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In modern times, the motif of the shadow can be seen in various superhero and fantasy films. Batman can be seen as the shadow of Bruce Wayne, Harry Potter’s ability to speak to snakes is a sign of his magical connection to the evil Lord Voldemort, and so forth.

Perhaps the most notable example of the shadow, however, comes in the distinction between the light and dark sides of the force in the Star Wars saga. Indeed it is the inability to recognise and come to terms with his own shadow that causes Anakin Skywalker to succumb to the dark side and become Darth Vader. Years later, Vader’s son, Luke would also battle his shadow, but, unlike his father, he would be able to recognise and ultimately overcome his own dark nature.

The shadow is an aspect of the Jungian concept of the psyche. The psychologist Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) conceived of the human psyche as a self-regulating system comprised of many complex and archetypal parts. The ‘self’, therefore, is the totality of all the aspects of the psyche. It is the part of us that expresses a desire for fulfilment, that aims at goals, and drives us forward.

The Jungian concept of the psyche consists of the persona, the ego, the self, the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious, the shadow, and the anima and animus. The ego represents the aspects of our psyches that we are consciously aware of. It is the part of our psyches that regulates and organises our memories, our thoughts, our feelings, our sensory experiences, our intuitions, and so forth. From the psyche, our concept of ourselves and our place in existence springs forth.

Standing in contrast to the ego is the Jungian concept of the unconscious, which can be split into the collective unconscious and personal unconscious. The collective unconscious refers to the deep-seated and archetypal memories and instincts shared by the entirety of the human race.  The personal unconscious is developed through the interaction between the collective unconscious and personal development.  Jung himself defined it as:

“Everything of which I know, but of which I am not at the moment thinking; everything of which I was once  conscious but have now forgotten; everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind;  everything which, involuntarily and without paying attention to it, I feel, think, remember, want, and do;  all the future things which are taking shape in me and will sometime come to consciousness; all this is  the content of the unconscious… Besides these we must include all more or less intentional repressions of  painful thought and feelings. I call the sum of these contents the ‘personal unconscious’.”

It is from the collective unconscious that the shadow is grounded. This is because people are the product of both nature through the evolution of the human mind over millions of years (yes, this author is a believer in evolution), and their cultural heritage.

The simplest way of considering the shadow is to think of it as the part of your personality that you do not like. It is the part of yourself you have rejected because you consider it to be weak, flawed, inferior, or even disgusting. The Jungian psychologist, Aniela Jaffe (1903 – 1991), defined the shadow as the “sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the conscious attitude, are denied expression in life.”

The shadow emerges out of the essential need for choice and opposition in life. The shadow represents all those ‘unchosen’ choices. When we choose to be one way, we choose not to be the other way.   As the British philosopher, Alan Watts (1915 – 1973) said:

“It’s always the devil, the unacknowledged one, the outcast, the scapegoat,  the bastard, the bad guy, you see, the black sheep of the family. It’s always from that point, that which we could call the fly in the ointment, you see, that generation comes. In other words, in the same way as in the drama to have the play it is necessary to introduce a villain, it’s necessary to introduce a certain level of trouble. So, in the whole scheme of life, there has to be the shadow because without the shadow there can’t be the substance.”

Jung saw the shadow as presenting a “moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality.” Because it represents a side of ourselves that we do not like our instinct is to try and hide and repress our shadow. Often those who have totally rejected their own dark side will unconsciously project the dark or negative aspects of their own personalities onto people or entities that they do not like.  The more we condemn the evil in others, Jung observed, the blinder we are to it in ourselves.

Understanding and reconciling oneself to their shadow is an integral part of self-enlightenment. One must make himself consciously aware of the darker elements of their own psyche without being an enemy to it,  and then accept it as absolutely present and real. In doing so, it is possible for the individual to integrate the evil within themselves and place their devils in their proper function.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF WAR

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This week we will be examining Sir Peter Paul Ruben’s (1577 – 1640) 1639 masterpiece, the Consequences of War.

In 1638, Rubens wrote a letter to Justus Sustermans (1597 – 1681), the court painter to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinanda II de Medici (1610 – 1670), explaining the painting’s meaning:”The principal figure is Mars, who has left the open temple of Janus (which in time of peace,

“The principal figure is Mars, who has left the open temple of Janus (which in time of peace, according to Roman custom, remained closed) and rushes forth with shield and blood-stained sword, threatening the people with great disaster.  He pays little heed to Venus, his mistress, who, accompanied by Amors and  Cupids, strives with caresses and embraces to hold him. From the other side, Mars is dragged forward by the Fury Alekto, with a torch in her hand.  Nearby are monsters personifying Pestilence and Famine,  those inseparable partners of War.  On the ground, turning her back, lies a woman with a broken lute,  representing Harmony, which is incompatible with the discord of War.  There is also a mother with her child in her arms, indicating that fecundity, procreation and charity are thwarted by War, which corrupts and destroys everything. In addition, one sees an architect thrown on his back, with his instruments in his hand, to show that which in time of peace is constructed for the use and ornamentation of the City,  is hurled to the ground by the force of arms and falls to ruin.  I believe, if I remember rightly, that you will find on the ground, under the feet of Mars a book and a drawing on paper, to imply that he treads underfoot all the arts and letters. There ought also to be a bundle of darts or arrows, with the band which held them together undone; these when bound form the symbol of Concord.  Beside them is the caduceus and an olive branch, attribute of Peace; these are also cast aside.  That grief-stricken woman clothed in black, with torn veil, robbed of all her jewels and other ornaments, is the unfortunate Europe who, for so many years now, has suffered plunder, outrage, and misery, which are so injurious to everyone that it is unnecessary to go into detail.  Europe’s attribute is the globe, borne by a small angel or  genius, and surmounted by the cross, to symbolize the Christian world.”

BUSTING THE MYTH OF THE DARK AGES

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Is there any other time in history more malaligned than the Middle Ages?  Our modern conception of the so-called “dark ages” is that it was time characterised by superstition, barbarity, oppression, ignorance with a few outbreaks of the plague, just to make things interesting.

This view has been helped by numerous so-called educational resources. BBC’s Bitesize website, for example, takes a leaf from certain 19th-century British historians,  the type of who saw Catholics as ignorant and childish, and caricatures Medieval peasants as “extremely superstitious” individuals who were “encouraged to rely on prayers to the saints and superstition” for guidance through life.  It even accuses the Catholic Church of stagnating human thought and impeding technological development.

This does not represent the view, however, of many serious historians and academics. As Professor Ronald Numbers of Cambridge University explains:

“Notions such as: ‘the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science’, ‘the medieval Christian Church  suppressed the growth of the natural sciences’, ‘the medieval Christians thought that the world was  flat’, and ‘the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages’ [are] examples of  widely popular myths that still pass as historical truth, even though they are not supported by  historical research.’

In reality, the Middle Ages saw advances in law, politics, the sciences, theology, philosophy, and more. It saw the birth of the chartered town which ushered in the tradition of local self-governance. The existence of a strong papacy laid the foundations of limited political power as it prevented monarchs, who justified their power through their so-called “unique” relationship with God and the Church, from monopolising power.  This symbolic limitation on monarchical power was manifested in the Magna Carta (1215) and the birth of the English Parliament.

The people of the Middle Ages produced magnificent Gothic cathedrals and churches. Many medieval monks became patrons of the arts and many were even artists themselves. In literature, the Middle Ages saw Dante’s the Divine Comedy and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In music, the Middle Ages laid the foundation of Western classical music and saw the development of musical notation, western harmony, and many of the Christmas carols we know and love today.

Likewise, the Carolingian Renaissance of the 8th and 9th centuries saw advancements in the study of literature, architecture, jurisprudence, and theology. Medieval scholars and scientists, many of whom were monks and friars, studied natural philosophy, mathematics, engineering, geography, optics, and medicine.

In the spirit of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment, many universities, including Oxford University, Cambridge University, and the University of Cologne. These universities educated their students on law, medicine, theology, and the arts. In addition, the period also saw the foundation of many schools and many early Christian monasteries were committed to the education of the common people.

The Middle Ages saw advances in science, literature, philosophy, theology, the arts, music, politics, law, and more. Its legacy is all around us: whether it is in the limitations placed on the powers of Governments, the music we listen to, or in the tradition of education many of us have benefited from. In an era of political correctness perhaps we should be wondering whether we’re living in the “dark ages.”