Part 1 was posted long ago! — I’m definitely tardy in following up.
A recap is certainly in order. I introduced the topic, the cure of the soul, by quoting an Orthodox priest:
- According to Orthodox tradition, after Adam’s fall man became ill; his nous [mind/heart] was darkened and lost communion with God. Death entered into the person’s being and caused many anthropological, social, even ecological problems.
Orthodox tradition claims that humanity suffers greatly from a sickness of the soul. If so, we need to obtain a healing for that malaise: i.e., a cure of the soul.
I posed three questions for your consideration:
- Do human beings suffer from a spiritual or psychical malaise?
- If so, what precisely is wrong? (What is your diagnosis of the malaise?)
- How can the malaise be remedied? (What treatment would you prescribe?)
In my opinion, the answer to question #1 is Yes, human beings suffer from a spiritual malaise. I provided evidence to support my position in the original post. Here I want to press on to answer questions 2 and 3.
It may seem simplistic to reduce “what ails all human beings everywhere” to a single problem, and yet I believe it can be done. In fact, I believe it can be reduced to a single word: what ails us is that we are self-centered.
“Self-centered” does not necessarily imply “conceited”. People can have a very low opinion of themselves but, if they are constantly thinking about what worms they are, they are still pathologically self-centered.
I believe our self-centeredness is responsible for many of the problems mentioned in my earlier post: an inequitable distribution of wealth (selfish acquisitiveness); racism, hate speech, and attempted genocide (failure to understand and accept others not like ourselves); environmental degradation (failure to live in a way that is sustainable for the sake of succeeding generations).
Moreover, to be self-centered is to be estranged from God and from fellow human beings. This estrangement or isolation is the source of much of our chronic discontent. As I pointed out in the previous post, depression is widespread in modern, Western societies. It persists even in the midst of material affluence and good health relative to previous generations.
At this point I want to discuss a mythological account of human origins. The account is found in the Hebrew scriptures, in Genesis 3, where the serpent tempts Eve. The author of that text offers his or her account of the sickness of the human soul.
Until the first sin, Adam and Eve led an other-centered life: God was the focal point of their existence. In Genesis 3:5, the serpent says to Eve, “when you eat of [the fruit] … you will be like God”. Thus the first sin may be described as Eve’s attempt to exalt self in the place of God.
At that point, human beings ceased to be other-centered: self became the focal point of human existence.
It doesn’t matter to me how you regard the text. You may believe that Genesis is the word of God and records historical events. Or you may believe that Genesis came from a human author, who used myth to communicate his or her opinion. Either way, the text lays out a theory about the human condition: an account of the sickness of the soul (self elevated to the place of God) that afflicts all human beings everywhere.
Now we move to question #3: How can the malaise be remedied? (What treatment would you prescribe?)
Regular readers are aware that I am a Christian, but I don’t want to get evangelistic on you. Instead of presenting Christian doctrine in isolation, I want to compare it to two other worldviews.
a) Buddhist worldview
First, a Buddhist worldview. Over the years I have engaged in a little study of Buddhism. By no means am I an expert on it, but I find Buddhism particularly instructive because it differs so profoundly from the Judeo-Christian worldview.
The diagnosis outlined above offers a point of contact between Buddhism and Christianity. Consider this statement by Dr. Walpola Rahula:
- According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of “me” and “mine”, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems. It is the source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world.1
Dr. Rahula here echoes the argument I made above. He claims that self-centeredness is the root cause of “all the evil in the world”.
But the sharp-eyed reader will notice there is also a conflict between Buddhism and Christianity on this topic. Christians believe that the self is real, but the Buddha denied it. Our subjective experience is that we have a self; but Buddhists claim this is “an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality.”2
Treatment, from the Buddhist perspective, is a matter of enlightenment. We must arrive at a deep realization that our subjective experience of self is merely a false consciousness. Again, I want to stress that I am no expert on Buddhism. But my understanding is that enlightenment is achieved partly through education (taking hold of the Buddha’s teaching) and partly through meditation (breaking through to a different sort of consciousness).
For the Christian, treatment is necessarily different, because Christians accept that the self is real. Again, I want to avoid preaching an evangelistic message here. But I will observe that Christianity tells us we need to be resurrected or reborn or regenerated. These are different metaphors for a single idea: that the individual needs God to intervene to effect a fundamental change inside of him or her.
(I believe this perspective is shared, at least to some extent, by Judaism. Certainly the perspective is rooted in the Hebrew scriptures: e.g. Ezekiel 36:26. Admittedly, however, Judaism places more emphasis on human obedience to God’s law.)
Here, too, Buddhism stakes out a starkly different position. The Buddha taught that each person must
- develop himself and work out his own emancipation, for man has the power to liberate himself from all bondage through his own personal effort and intelligence. … If the Buddha is to be called “a savior” at all, it is only in the sense that he discovered and showed the Path to Liberation, Nirvana. But we must tread the Path ourselves.
Perhaps I may be permitted to register an objection to this Buddhist teaching. Dr. Rahula tells us that the self is illusory; but then he tells us that “we must tread the Path ourselves”. Thus the individual is thrown back on self as the vehicle of liberation. If the objective is to escape self, it is paradoxical to rely on self as the means of escape.3
b) Secular worldview
Finally, I must briefly address the secular worldview. I assume that secular readers will be drawn to the Christian assertion that the self is real. On the other hand, they will be drawn to the Buddhist doctrine that “man has the power to liberate himself from all bondage through his own personal effort and intelligence.”
Thus a secular worldview cannot adopt the Christian way of escape (regeneration via God’s intervention), nor can it adopt the Buddhist way of escape (a shift of consciousness which recognizes that self is an illusion).
More than this: it seems to me that the secular worldview is inescapably self-centered. Modern Westerners deny God’s existence, so God cannot serve as the focal point for an other-centered orientation. Moreover, there is no such thing as objective, absolute truth, which might provide common ground to lift us beyond our narrow individualism.
Arguably the noblest achievement of modern Westerners is our human rights codes. But note that such codes enshrine individual rights and freedoms. There is no corresponding legal doctrine of social responsibilities or obligations. Again, I am led to suspect that a secular worldview offers no way to cure the sickness of the human soul, the root of all our problems: our intractable self-centeredness.
Of course, I am biased because I am deeply committed to a Christian worldview. I invite my readers to set the record straight if I have misrepresented the secular position.
What are your answers to questions 2 and 3?
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 2nd ed., 1974.
2I am aware that this is a somewhat simplistic account of what Buddhists actually teach. In a sense, there is such a thing as “self”. But it does not correspond to what Christians mean by the term, since self is neither the pure essence of the individual, nor constant. Instead, the self is understood as an aggregate which changes from one moment to the next:
According to the Buddha’s teaching, it is as wrong to hold the opinion “I have no self” as to hold the opinion “I have self”, because both are fetters, both arising out of the false idea, “I AM”. … What we call “I”, or “being”, is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect. … There is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging and eternal in the whole of existence.
3It may appear that Buddhist thought is hopelessly contradictory at this point, but the fault perhaps lies with my simplistic presentation of the subject. I will clarify the Buddhist teaching by again quoting Dr. Rahula:
There are two kinds of truths: conventional truth and ultimate truth. When we use such expressions in our daily life as “I”, “you”, “being”, “individual”, etc., we do not lie because there is no self or being as such, but we speak a truth conforming to the convention of the world. But the ultimate truth is that there is no “I” or “being” in reality.