The Flying Spagetti Monster

Guest Post by Dr David Matcham

The Risky Leap of Faith into the Unknown

One of the common arguments wheeled out against religious belief by those of the scientific positivist mould is that religious belief is opposed to scientific evidence, that, indeed, “faith” is an essentially anti-rational adherence to that which is believed in the teeth of evidence to the contrary.  I don’t want to tread old ground here and wade in with my own arguments against this or that, or for this, or for the other.  Rather, what I find interesting here is not the argument but the way in which faith as a way of knowing, as a way of being even, is much misused by its rationalist critics.  That is, obviously if one wants to reduce faith to the simple capacity to cling to certain ideas or propositions in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of contrary evidence, then “faith” so understood is highly questionable.  But is this equivalent to that which is being proposed by those who place life-giving value on the fact of their faith?  Also, is “evidence” the only way, or even the best way through which we can come to know something?

flying_spaghetti_monster_2

I want to suggest that, in essence scientific positivists are not opposed so much to the form of faith-based knowing so much as they are opposed to the uncertain nature of what threatens to break through from such an epistemological position: fairies, ghosts, flying spaghetti monsters, etc.  This is hardly an unreasonable position to have; (though I personally have my doubts that superstitious belief isn’t actually “evidence-based” in one form or another).  Likewise, faith-based “knowers” are not opposed to the call for evidence from scientific positivists, it is just that they are conscious that to know something through an essential leap of faith in which neither the form of knowing, nor the object of such knowing is certain is not one which can be upheld if the guarantees of evidence are also sought to bolster one’s knowledge.  That is, to know an object as an object of faith is implicitly not to base such knowledge on that which can be objectively verified.  This does not exclude such objective knowing, it simply is not central to it.

There are two forms of knowledge at work here, and two ways in which knowledge is known by the knower.  The problem is that both are making truth-claims, but truth-claims of radically different orders of knowledge; and this to such an extent that the claims of the other are not recognised as legitimate, because outside of their respective realms they are not legitimate.  So, to know something through a long established peer-review process of evidence gathering and scholarly research is qualitatively different than it is to know something through a leap of faith.  The key difference resides in the extent to which knowledge requires the stamp of evidence as a guarantee, and the degree to which one is personally involved in the given knowledge-based position; the greater the personal involvement/risk in a given knowledge position, the greater the chance will be that such knowledge will not (and cannot) be evidence based: to believe in Atlantis is not the same as to believe in the faithfulness of one’s wife.  The one involves the knower at a great personal distance, whereas the other involves the knower at the most intimate level of his being.  To base one’s knowledge of a wife’s faithfulness on objective grounds is to remove the personal from that which is explicitly personal, rendering such knowledge safe for the knower.  To believe in Atlantis objectively or otherwise is to indulge in essentially safe speculation the truth of which effects the knower not one jot.  On this level to believe in Atlantis or String Theory is equivalent in terms of existential involvement: one is true, the other not, but neither require the knower to place his or her subjectivity on the line because neither make any personal demands on the knower.

destruction-of-atlantisSo, what is happening in this leap of faith, and why is it a valid form of knowledge?  Essentially, the leap of faith is literally a leap into the darkness of not-knowing, in which one does not trust to one’s cognitive capacity or ability to master an object of knowledge.  Indeed, the object of knowledge may not even exist, at least, not in a form recognisable to the potential knower.  The leap of faith is the openness to the possibility that the leap of faith may actually fail or prove otherwise false; as such it is an inherently risky business.  Insofar as faith leads to a form of certainty it is a constitutionally unstable certainty because the knower cannot refer back to any evidence as a form of guarantee.  This does not invalidate the certainty, it merely means that it cannot take the form of a guaranteed certainty, for which one has one’s scholarly, peer-reviewed existential receipt.

Faith, then, is not so much constituted by the content of the knowledge which results from it, but rather by the readiness of the faith-full one to not master in advance that which appears as an object of knowledge – or even the appearance of an object of knowledge at all.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the relational format of subjective knower over and above the objective known is deconstructed.  In faith one has to risk the possibility that one’s usual stance as a subject opposite an object of knowledge is itself unstable; that one does not so much know as much as one is known.

Faith cannot be constituted as a blank cheque to believe anything one likes.  To be sure, faith is always orientated towards the object of faith: it is never blind, but sees its object through eyes of faith.  It is always a faith-in-something.  In its approach to the object faith seeks a form of engagement, of knowing and of being known, that does not demand a receipt in exchange for its trust.  In this it could be severely mistaken; the object of its faith may be non-existent, malignant, or even unknowable.  This cannot be known in advance according to the logic of faith.  Of course, it could be argued that such form of knowing is not worth the risk; except that, if one waits for evidence to give a cast-iron guarantee to your faith then you can be sure that what is known through evidence is not the same as that which can only be known through the open riskiness of faith.  This is because the certain knowing that comes from prior evidence (scientific knowing) is not the same as the knowing that comes from eschewing evidence as a form of guaranteed security.  To know without the possibility of doubt, or failure, or risk is qualitatively different from knowing with the constant possibility of not-knowing or of remaining ignorant.  This is why belief in fairies or sea-monsters is not the same as faith in Christ, because such belief places these spectres of fantasy in the world as (invisible) objects of certain knowledge.  It is as easy to believe in fairies as it is to “believe” in red tea pots, there is no leap of faith required for either, just a more or less sloppy relationship with apparent evidence; thus belief in fairies actually fits in with the form of knowing laid out by scientific positivism.  Belief in fairies does not involve the believer within a form of knowing in which their whole self is put on the line; which means that superstitious beliefs are not the same as the leaps of faith I am describing.

On the contrary, to have in Christ cannot be reduced to the position of believing specific propositions about him as being factually true; believing he rose from the dead is not the same as believing that he had brownish hair and grey eyes.  The former fact makes certain claims on the one who believes it that the latter does not.  To believe that Christ rose from the dead is to give of your self in a way that believing in a certain messianic hair colour does not require.  Whatever evidence (philosophical, archaeological, textual, etc) that may exist for or against the resurrection is not of particular importance to the one who knows through a leap of faith; such evidence more or less places the one who stayed dead or was resurrected within the frame of guaranteed objects of knowledge.  Knowing Christ through quality-assured evidence based forms of knowing is not the same as throwing oneself into the unknown not-knowing of faith-full knowledge.  This is not, again, to say that faith cannot be certain; just that this certainty does not reveal itself as something that requires a guarantee to operate.  The certainty that comes from faith comes through the appearing of that which can only be known through faith.  Of course this may never happen; the faith may prove to be objectless in the sense that Christ is dead, or that God doesn’t exist.  There is the possibility that God does not exist, in which case any imagined certainty of faith would be misplaced; but that is the point of faith: one cannot know in advance what will be encountered, or even if anything at all will be met with.  The absence of certainty is here the opposite of a blank cheque of belief, because the faith-full one is not in a position to dictate what form the object of his faith will take before him; and, of course, no one would place this sort of faith in random fantasies of the imagination.

The main point to be made regarding faith and knowledge is that there are some things that can only be known through a leap of faith.  For example, it can only be known that a supposedly reformed thief will become honest by trusting him.  Based on the evidence alone no sensible man or woman would ever make that leap into the unknown: he might now be honest, he might not, but that is none of the sensible person’s concern, and so remains forever out of reach as a possibility.  In this sense, though, actually trusting a thief has the creative potential to make him honest, might give him the incentive to become honest: faith here is creative in what it knows, or allows to be made known as a possibility.  It is only through faith that faith is justified, not through choices based entirely on evidence.  Without that faith one would never know; with faith a situation is opened up as a possibility that would otherwise (especially if left to the guaranteed certainties of evidence).  Likewise, belief in God based on evidence is inherently unstable, because the evidence is uncertain, and in any case, a God in whom one can be evidentially secure is no different from any other equally “known” object in the universe, be it an apple, a planet, an alien or water-fairies.  Trusting a thief against all odds does not require a leap of faith that the thief actually exists (that is as certain as any other object of knowledge); what is at stake is the possibility that the thief may be able to become honest – at present it requires a leap into the unknown, a risk, an imaginative stance towards a possibility that may prove expensively false to the knower.  Likewise, with God, an uncertain evidential basis requires that the only way to know him is to make a leap into the unknown.  This is the choice.  To not make the leap, to stay on the side of safely weighing up the evidence for or against and remaining undecided is to never know; faith opens the possibility up for the individual that God may exist, and if he does, to be known.  Without faith it is impossible to know, just as without trusting a thief it is impossible to know if he can become honest.  Thus, it can be seen here that evidence can only go so far in terms of the choices we make; some things can only be known through making a leap into the unknown, where the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.  Faith then is stupid, is risky, is as open to failure as it is to success, and cannot be accessed through guarantees; but without it some things will remain forever unknown.  To trust an already trusted honest man with a till of money is not a leap of faith, is not a risk to the person doing the trusting.  Without that gap between the known, the certain, and the unknown, important modes of knowledge remain forever out of reach.

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Where He is, there I shall also be!

Where He is, there I shall also be!

Thoughts of unworthiness can come and go.  Sometimes they stay and hover in our mind as though they are the things that matter most, that they are the truth to us being us, or me being me.  We lie to ourselves, thinking that this must be what God really thinks about us!  

Well, I for one am not immune to such thoughts.  I know, as a Christian that I deserve death and hell.  I know I do.  My own sinful nature tells me, my sins acted out tell me, my sins in thought, word and deed.

But.

I am a Christian.  I follow a saving and risen Jesus.  He has defeated sin and death and He is Lord.  I walk by faith and I live in grace.  Not arrogantly, but utterly dependently.  Not slothfully, but watchfully.  Not as if I have achieved anything for myself, but because Jesus has achieved everything for me that I could never achieve.

It’s all grace.  It’s all Christ Jesus.

The following was said by that tortured soul, the Reformer Martin Luther.  He had depressive tendencies, he had dark thoughts, and he knew he was a sinner, yet he said this…..

 

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, then tell him this: I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know one who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf, his name is Jesus, the Son of God, and where he is, there I shall also be!”

So of course we deserve death and hell.  That’s why Jesus came to rescue the world, to save it.  Full of sinners as it is, people like you and me.  Jesus ensures we always get what we don’t deserve.  This is the bold confidence we have.

Because of Jesus.  Where He is, there I shall also be!

The Visitor and Inquisitor

One day, Jesus comes back.  He wanders through the streets and squares of a southern town, where just the day before 100 so-caleld heretics had been burnt at the stake.  The story-teller narrates, ‘He appeared quietly, unostentatiously, and yet – strange, this – everyone recognizes him.  Saying nothing, he passes among them with a smile of infinite compassion.’

The_Brother_KaramazovPeople who touch his garment are healed, a blind man’s sight is restored.  He even raises a small girl from the dead.  The crowds erupt, shouting and sobbing.  At this very moment, the Grand Inquisitor, a man of ninety, emerges from the cathedral.  The crowd meekly parts, and they bow their heads to the ground.  He then has the Visitor arrested.

Later, recieving the prisoner, the Grand Inquisitor says to him, ‘I know who you are.’  He accuses the prisoner of meddling.  The old man sentences the Prisoner to being burnt at the stake the next day.

The gist of his accusation against the Prisoner is that whereas the Prisoner has acted to ensure humanity’s freedom, the Grand Inquisitor acts to ensure humanity’s happiness.  He ensures their happiness by providing them with bread, with certainty, and with belonging.  The people, claims the Grand Inquisitor, cannot bear the freedom that Jesus has left them with; it was uncharitable of him to attempt this.  All those centuries ago, by refusing the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus had said no to buying people’s loyalty with bread, or with a display of miracles on demand, leaving them only their free wills and consciences from which to act.  ‘But the people are mere sheep,’ said the Grand Inquisitor, ‘and you have asked too much of them.  The freedom is an intolerable burden, which we have toiled for fifteen centuries to remove.’

The only response the Prisoner makes is to draw near to the old man, and kiss him on his bloodless ninety-year-old lips.  The old man shudders and cries, ‘Go, and do not come back . . . . do not come back . . . . . ever!’

A paraphrase from Chapter V, ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, in Fyodor Dostoesvsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, pg.227-54

Moor Sillouette

I took this on Dartmoor, Devon, UK

The Rise and Fall of God

Ascension Day: ‘The Rise and Fall of God’

Luke 24:36-53 (Acts 1:4-11)

Ascension Day! I know, I know, most of us are like: Say that again!

Most of us who have been Christians for some time now and heard of this strange thing called ‘The Ascension of Jesus,’ but, if truth be told, we treat it like we treat a Big Issue seller: We know it’s there, but we can’t wait to get passed it and onto other things.

And even when we do, for a brief moment, consider the ascension of Jesus, we will most likely have those embarrassing images from film and TV in our heads of that awkward moment when Jesus is blessing his disciples, hand raised (as we see in much post-Enlightenment art), as he is strangely lifted into the sky, and hid behind a fluffy cloud. If we’re not laughing at how silly it looks on the screen, we’re certainly left wondering if it really happened like that!

Bright scratches

And so the Ascension of Jesus has become like that embarrassing uncle everyone avoids at weddings. It becomes a footnote in history and to the gospel story we tell. By all means mention the teaching and the cross and the resurrection and the reign of Jesus, but….well, the ascension is more than a tad embarrassing.

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Christianity Builds Me

Guest post by Dr Rob Knowles:

How is belief related to desire?
“We may indeed want to believe in something, and therefore believe in it. Thus, for example, we want to think that we are good, righteous, not that bad, better than average, not as bad as so and so, morally more advanced than Daily Mail readers – and so on. And we tend to believe this, even as Christians, even though Jesus says ‘God alone is good’ and Paul says ‘all are sinful’.

***
But when somebody says, “ah, but you would believe that, wouldn’t you, you‘re a Christian”, then you know that they have done almost no study. They are just repeating a speech-utterance that it has become fashionable to utter in tipsy conversations in pubs, restaurants, and at the kitchen-table soirees of middle-class pretenders.

***

In the history of the world there have been very few genuine intellectual challenges to Christianity. Claims are forever being made, by a Dawkins or a Fry. And such characters tend to be brilliant orators and conversationalists too – they have mastered the mockery of their opponents; they have mastered how to win in sophistic exchanges; they can make those with double their IQ – but with the hesitancy of intellectual integrity – look like fools. But all that is in spoken exchanges. It is in their texts that they come across as mere popularists, as intellectual lightweights. Dawkins is no Wittgenstein; and Fry is no Heidegger. Wittgenstein and Heidegger both help us to understand Christianity. Dawkins and Fry merely obscure and caricature it.

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About that baby in the manger…

difficult gospel“If Jesus’ whole life to us is God’s word to us, then he is God’s word not only when he is intelligible, not only when he makes clear sense – not only when he is graspable and useable by us.  He is also God’s word when he is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.  [Rowan] Williams notes our temptation to make the ‘tightly swaddled baby’ of the Christmas stories into ‘a gift-wrapped object, passive and docile for use in our business, our transactions; a lucky mascot; the sleeping partner in the firm (the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay)’ – ‘little Lord Jesus, like Little Lord Fauntelroy, who generates in us such good and warm feelings that we know we can’t be wrong’.  Williams reminds us just how strange this view is:

‘The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes / But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.’  Every parent in Christendom must have blinked with incredulous envy at this miracle:  never mind the angels and the star, a baby who doesn’t cry when surrounded by a herd of hungry cows is much more of a prodigy!  Babies, in fact, may be wordless and dependent, but they are not, as a rule silent, nor are they passive.  They make their presence felt, they alter lives; their dependence is a matter of fingers clutching at ours when we’d like to be getting on with something; broken nights, hungry mouths at the breast; the need to be taught and watched and entertained, brought into the world of human speech and relation.  If God is with us as a child – a real child – he is not after all so tidily gift-wrapped, so functional.  If God is with us as a child, he is certainly with us as one who calls out our tenderness and compassion; but he does so by an insistent presence without shame or restraint, crying and clutching.  He is the God who, in St. Augustine’s unforgettable words, penetrates my deafness by his violent loud crying . . . . . So far from the divine child being a cipher, the tool of our schemes and systems, he confronts us with the alarming, mysterious, shattering strangeness of God.’

That Jesus is also God’s word to us when he is this child reminds us that God is not simply there to meet our needs, and that our language about and understanding of God – which tries to wrap him up, tie him down, and place him silent in the manger – needs interrupting, needs to be made aware  of its deafness.  We are too prone to relish the success of our language about God, to think that we have understood – that our smooth, neatly interlocking concepts allow us to grasp all that really needs to be said about God.  Williams takes the disturbing, interrupting, uncontrollable nature of a child’s crying as a sign of the wildly prolific, difficult, messy, uncontrollable, inelegant, disturbing nature of the language about God that we find in our Bible and in the testimonies of obstinate believers who refuse to see things in quite the way we do, and therefore as a sign of the ways in which God escapes all our language.

[T]here is a terrible aptness, a rhetorical rightness, in a God who speaks in a child’s cry.  And it is so cruelly hard – for believer and unbeliever alike – to face the possibility that silence, stumbling aparent crudity, tell you more of God than the language of would-be adult sophistication.  As if the best theology were the noise of someone falling over things in the dark.

It is God himself who lobs rocks into the smooth pond of our language about God, shattering our complacency – and only so can he keep us from preferring the idols which our words construct.  ‘[W]e must be surprised, ambushed and carried off by God,’ Williams says, ‘if we are to be kept from idols.’  ‘God himself is the great “negative theologian”, who shatters all our images by addressing us in the cross of Jesus.’

When we think about God, there is always an extent to which we end up fitting him into our world, as one element in it among others.  We simply can’t think God’s absolute difference from the world, and God’s absolute intimacy to it; we can only gesture towards an understanding with inadequate pictures and images.  We need constantly to be reminded that the reality towards which even our best words gesture transcends them and exceeds them – that, however much they are appropriate ingredients in the process by which we are drawn into the life of God, and weaned from self-serving idols, all our words fail radically to grasp God.  The God we can think, the God we fit into our mental schemas, the God we can put on a list of things we understand, is not not God.”

Mike Higton, Difficult Gospel – The Theology of Rowan Williams, p.50-52

A Short Treatise on Temptation

This is a guest post by my bro David Matcham on the nature of Temptation.

Temptation:

How are we to understand the biblical concept of temptation? Is there such a thing as a Biblical concept of temptation? How does temptation manifest itself in and through the Biblical text. The primary source of information in the Bible comes from Luke 4: 1-13, the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness. In one sense this might seen unfortunate since, if this is the primary way in which temptation is seen to manifest itself as a Biblical concept, might it not fall prey to the criticism that Jesus, being the Son of God, was in an inherently privileged position to resist temptation when it came his way; that, maybe, the temptation of Jesus was a kind of show-temptation, a foregone conclusion far removed from the daily experiences of temptation as it is encountered by Christians across the globe? Can the temptation of Jesus, by no less than Satan himself, be seen as normative of the concept of temptation for all Christians in general?

I would argue that in spite of these considerations, the temptation of Jesus both is and can be seen as a working model for how the Bible understands temptation. James 1: 13-15 takes a line on temptation that might seen to contradict the idea of Christ’s temptation as normative for our own experience. He writes:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death.”

‘God cannot be tempted by evil.’ A common sense reading of this passage would leave the reader thinking that, since God cannot be tempted by evil, either Jesus was not really tempted by the devil, or that he is not really God incarnate. Since the latter totally opposes orthodox teaching on the matter of who Christ is we must for the moment resist a common sense reading in this direction; but, equally, the former stretches both the meaning of those verses in Luke and any working conception of the incarnation. That is, if the temptation in the desert was a piece of pure theatre what possible reason do we have for holding fast to a definition of the incarnation which identifies Christ as a man exactly like any other man, warts, temptations and all? A clue perhaps beyond a common sense reading lies I think in the precise wording of the epistle, that is that ‘God cannot be tempted by evil [êáêþí].’

The Temptation in the Wilderness 1824 John St John Long 1798-1834 Purchased 1986 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T04169

The Temptation in the Wilderness 1824 John St John Long 1798-1834

Herein, too, lies one of the main points that I would raise about the nature of Biblical temptation as it manifests itself within the text, that the concept of temptation is not identical with the concept of temptation of, or by, evil. For example, what were the temptations of Christ? They were, in order:
1. to turn a stone into bread (he was extremely hungry). Luke 4: 3
2. worldly authority.           Luke 4: 5, 6
3. to prove to himself and others that he was the messiah through the working of miracles. Luke 4: 9-11

 

In each instance it is arguable that evil was not the intended aim of the temptation; indeed, even for the second, the “temptation” to bow the knee to Satan in exchange for worldly authority was merely a means to an end, at no point was Christ offered the opportunity, and therefore faced the temptation, of simply bowing before the devil with nothing else in view. The devil, as before in Eden, when he tempted Eve with godlike knowledge, was not positing something that in itself was evil. To be sure, the context of both the ministry of reconciliation for Christ, and the rule of obedience in Eden renders the giving in to the temptation an evil, but neither godlike knowledge nor worldly authority are in themselves evils.

Temptation, then very rarely, if at all, enters into the Biblical conception of it as a pure temptation to that which in itself is evil; rather, temptation is the tempting towards a certain good that, contextually, renders the giving in to it an evil. In this regard temptation can be seen as working within the frame of conceptions of the good in conflict with other goods. So, seen in this light, the fact that David, for example, felt a strong sexual desire towards Bathsheba and acted on it was not in itself an evil; the evil consists in the context in which such a desire and such an act occurred. Having sex with Bathsheba was a good towards which the will and desire of David had orientated themselves in contradiction to the context in which she was already another man’s wife, thus rendering the good of sexual union between the two an evil. Evil is not here conceived of as having inherent reality, but rather feeds off the good as a distortion of it.

Likewise, the turning of bread into stone, of claiming worldly authority, of performing miracles, are not to be seen as evils desired by Christ, but merely manifestations of goods that contradicted a good which had a greater claim on the orientation of desires. In order to develop a point for further reflection I turn now to Kant’s understanding of what he termed ‘diabolical evil’, that is, an evil which desires evil because it is evil, which, turning its back on any conception of the good, desires that evil above all else. In this sense, in orientating the will to desire that which is in itself evil, the will makes a “good” out of the evil. Herein lies the paradox noted by Kant, that diabolical evil was only a theoretical possibility for humans, since to desire the evil as if it were a good would be ultimately destructive of the desiring self and logically impossible.

The point to be made here is that every temptation offers the one tempted a good, the context of which renders a given temptation illicit. Of course one could dispute this, to say that the temptation to murder a small child, say, is not a good that has been perverted. In reply I would add that, yes, while the murder of small children is not in any context a conceivable good, the context of which renders it sometimes illicit and other times licit, however it is enough to say that at that time this action must be seen by the tempted would-be murderer as a good to be desired, for whatever reason. In order, therefore, for something to be tempting it must first be made manifest as a good to the one tempted, even if on the level of morality that something is in fact an outrage. Diabolical evil, in contrast, is an evil that is in no way encountered as a possible good.

This brings me to the central point that I would like to make: that temptation is a matter of the affections, to what or whom they are orientated as towards a desirable good. Insofar as something immoral is desirable then it appears during the period of temptation as a good to be desired. This means then, that temptation takes at least three forms, but follows one logic. That is, that both moral and immoral things can appear as temptations. In the case of the first form (for example, of Christ’s temptation, Eve’s, David’s) that which is considered desirable is not in itself immoral, but is made immoral by the context in which they occur. In the case of the second type (the would-be child murderer) that which is desired is immoral, but because the orientation of the affections are always pointing towards a conceivable “good” the temptation to kill an innocent child is understood as a desirable good to be acted on. For example, the sheer visceral pleasure of killing might be the desirable good to which the murderer orientates himself. In the final type, the temptation is away from any orientation of the affections towards a conceivable good, towards making that which is in itself evil desirable.

In this type no act of immorality would be conducted out of a sense of gaining the slightest interest, and indeed might in fact work the other way against the one tempted. This is a theoretical possibility, but remains a technical impossibility for humans, because it is only by appearing as a possible good that evil can be in any way tempting. In this sense diabolical evil is not in the least bit tempting because it cannot appear as a possible good. To draw once more upon heterodox writers for the moment, both Kant and John Milton followed the argument that the reason why the fallen angels would never be redeemed was because they, in full knowledge of the evil to which they had turned, tempted themselves by that which was no temptation (no possible or conceivable good) at all.

The one logic that temptation follows here is of course that temptation is always a temptation towards a conceivable good, never an evil as an evil. It follows from this that the battle of desire in the Christian is in fact a battle for his affections, for the positing of an orientation towards a good that trumps all other conceivable goods. The idea that temptation can be fought by unveiling the evil hiding behind the presumed “good” while mildly helpful does not do justice to the power of the affections to immediately cover it over again with a real or imagined good.

The pleasures of drunkenness cannot be fought by pointing out the damage that alcohol does to either the liver or the lives of alcoholics, but by positing an even greater and consequently more desirable good in its place. So, rather than pointing out the damaging effects of alcohol on the life of an alcoholic one would instead in their place encourage an appreciation of sobriety as a good, to make it more attractive than the pleasures of drunkenness. In so far as the alcoholic is motivated to stop drinking because of a fear for his health rather than because he desires something else as a greater good than being drunk the battle of temptation for his affections has not yet begun.

Likewise, the same holds true for any other possible desire for any other possible real or imagined good; merely bolstering the will without changing the affections does nothing to affect the heart of the one so tempted if the temptation still appears as more desirable than Christ, and may in fact mitigate against Christ in the long run. The point, therefore, is not to expose the evil lurking behind the imagined good (for which you would need a considerable amount of time to work your way through each temptation), but rather to engage in orientating the affections in a single direction to the exclusion of all others. This is not to denigrate the impact of genuine temptation. Clearly if Christ experiences temptation (and to think his incarnation rightly this must have been so) then having one’s affections rightly orientated does not mitigate against temptations that must come as possible goods in a struggle for our affections. Insofar as something, anything, can appear as a possible good it has the potential to become a temptation to an evil.
In the case of Christ, his battle with genuine temptations took the form of clinging to that which he desired more, i.e. obedience to the will of the Father. Indeed, in this instance the “goods” that the devil was tempting Christ with were in many ways legitimate goods for the Son of God, and that is precisely what makes them so tempting for him. The temptation would have been a rather quick business had the devil tempted Christ with things that would never have appeared to Christ as possible goods, which shows that the temptation took the form of a battle for possible goods in the heart of Jesus. The battle was not at the level of the intellect, or even a pernickety adherence to the minutia of scripture, but rather at the level of the affections – what did Jesus desire as his greatest good, to what was his affection orientated in the face of other possible objects of affection? In order to beat the temptation Christ must necessarily have desired a prime good over all other possible contenders.

In so far as Christ’s temptation offers us a model for thinking and experiencing temptations for ourselves it offers two conclusions. The first is that when temptation comes our way it fixes itself onto our desires, and our desires are always fixed on that which appears as a possible good to which we necessarily orientate ourselves. This is why no two people experience temptation in exactly the same way, because that which for one is a possible good, for another may appear as being still a good, but considerably less so. The difference then between a man who gambles all his money away and a man who saves for the future is not a difference of will power or intellect, but a difference of orientation towards and an affection for differing goods: for the gambler the “good” of the pleasure of gambling takes precedence over the “good” of saving, and thus motivates his actions.

There is little room here for self-righteousness, which there might be if temptation were merely a matter of steeling the will against what you knew to be an evil when it first arose. The second conclusion is that the battle over temptation is a battle for the affections, the battle over that which seems to us a greater or lesser good at any given moment. The temptation will never appear as evil in itself, since even if a temptation is self-consciously aware of itself as being evil by the one tempted the core of the temptation will be a possible good such as, at the very least, immediate physical pleasure. In order for such temptation to overcome the good to which the temptation is pointing as desirable (which in itself is still a genuine good) this good must be seen by the affections as a lesser good than the prime good, which is Christ himself.

 

By David Matcham.

He blogs at ‘swivelchair theology‘ when he can be bothered (or rather, not tempted to do anything else)!

temptations