Our “Shadow Side”

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English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Ch...

English: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian on Ash Wednesday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was in high school, I did something that deeply shames me even today, thirty-three years later. A classmate and someone I knew from church asked me to take his tray since I was going to put mine up. The proper thing to do would be to say, “Sure, I’ll be happy to,” and put the tray up–it is a small thing, but as Jesus said, a cup of cold water given in His name is of eternal importance. Out of nowhere I said, “Why should I help you?” and walked away. I had no excuses. To this day I cannot explain my actions. I suppose that I was on the low end of the social totem pole and this individual perhaps was a bit lower–so I did a cruel, mean, and hateful thing to make myself feel better. I do not know if the person remembers it–in any case I have no idea where that person lives and that person may not remember what happened so long ago. I wish I had apologized at the time–too late now.  Psychologists have referred to a person’s “shadow side” that seems to come out of nowhere. Superficially that sounds profound–that at a subconscious level we have a cruel side that can break through into consciousness unexpectedly. I suspect, however, from the standpoint of Christian theology there is a simpler explanation–we are fallen, sinful beings. A natural love of self, which is good, turns into selfish pride, which is evil. The tendency to pump up one’s own pride by demeaning another person is part of that tendency. We have free will to resist, but we do not. We all sin, we all fall short of God’s glory. Thus, we all need God’s grace. If we have a shadow side, it is on the very edge of our consciousness rather than being far from it–we are responsible for our evil thoughts and evil deeds. Even a shadow side is a side, not separate from the self but part of the self.

I know that I cannot–and neither can any of you reading this post–overcome the temptation to pride on our own. It requires God’s help to do so. Even then, we will often fail. I suppose that is why the Catholic Church in all its branches affirms some kind of intermediate state between death and resurrection even if it is not called “Purgatory.” That prideful tendency to cut down others that reveals itself in cruelty when one’s guard is down must be, with God’s help, drawn out of our system. In my own tradition (Anglican Catholic) the Eucharist is the way to improve while in this life so that the next time an opportunity to help someone arises, I will help gladly and without complaint.

This is Ash Wednesday–“Remember, O man, that dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.” Keeping that mortality in mind focuses us to be motivated to seek something beyond ourselves, our Creator God, to help us live a life in love and service to others and live with God and our loved ones (and, I believe, plants and animals too) in eternity. Hopefully all of us can put on that armor of light during this Lenten season.

The Possibility of Punishment after Death

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Dante and Virgil in Hell

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Joseph Mengele lives a comfortable life in Argentina, even though he tortured Jews in the most hideous ways in his medical “experiments.” He dies quickly in a swimming accident. Controversial jury decisions put people back on the streets who may be murdering psychopaths. A spiteful person full of hatred tells lies that ruin the reputation of a good person, who leaves town and dies a pauper. The spiteful person gets rich and is admired by others in his community. The good suffer, the evil prosper, and so often there is no justice. How can the scales of justice be tipped in favor of justice in a world that fails so much to be just?

The Christian doctrine of punishment after death offers one answer. This is not to deny that other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, have a doctrine of suffering for sins after death in a bad reincarnated state based on their aggregated good or bad karma–but this is not the Christian doctrine of punishment. I also deny the gruesome literal pictures of hell pushed on people in conservative Protestant and in some Roman Catholic Churches and schools in the past. The notion of a person suffering in a literal fire for eternity does count against the goodness of God. But C. S. Lewis‘ notion that hell is people who choose against God and refuse to come to God because they desire to do their own will rather than God’s. God just lets them be and withdraws His presence. An evil person in hell could theoretically leave at any time, but some people are so desperately wicked that they will tell God to leave them alone rather than live under God’s terms in heaven. But such a life inevitably leads to misery and a personality that gets more fragmented over time. Eventually only shards of a person remain. Living apart from God is the worst punishment of all–and given a twisted enough will this can last forever. Thus, the Christian Church has affirmed the possibility of eternal punishment as well as the possibility that hell may be empty with only Purgatory existing. I hope the latter view is correct; but the former view makes more sense of human freedom and makes more sense of psychopathy and sociopathy. Some individuals are permanently twisted–and if they are such good manipulators, with the help of a manipulative lawyer, that they “beat the system” on earth, they will not be able to beat the justice of God. In the end their existence will be miserable–they will have no one else to manipulate or hurt and will live only with their immense egos eating away at their souls. Finally their egos will eat their identity, never wholly destroying it, but making a person as near to nothingness as possible. Perhaps there will be a kernel of goodness (beyond the metaphysical good of existing) that leads all these individuals to repent and turn away from the self to God. Perhaps John Hick is correct in his universalism. If a bad person is temporarily punished to the point of seeing the error of his ways and repenting, that is a good thing. We don’t know, and hope beyond hope that the worst people will repent while finding comfort that they will receive justice after this life is over, justice that they can only avoid by repentance, faith, and love so that they are open to the grace of God. I trust that God knows better than any of us what is in a person’s heart, and He will ensure that the injustices of this life are remedied in the Eschaton.

Halloween, Ignorance, and the Genetic Fallacy

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Jack-o-latern

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Some Christian churches condemn trick-or-treating as if it were a branch of witchcraft. Instead, they have “fall festivals” in which children dress up like Bible characters or (in the Catholic tradition) like saints. Halloween is, in the literature of Fundamentalist Christianity, connected with Satanism. Even in some less rigid Evangelical traditions Halloween is considered to be pagan.

These are ignorant positions. So what is Halloween? It is the eve of All Saints’ Day, which is why it is sometimes called “All Hallows Eve.” In the ancient Druidic religion of the Celts, it was considered a day in which spirits could pass through to this world. These spirits were not necessarily evil; some were benevolent, others not so much. To protect themselves from harmful spirits, Celts would dress up as spirits to ward off the bad ones. Other customs, such as the jack-0-lantern, arose from the Roman Catholic tradition, from the practice of placing a candle in a turnip to remember souls in Purgatory. Since the souls in Purgatory will be in Heaven one day, remembering them was not considered to be a frightening occasion.

By the late nineteenth century, the elements that would later make up trick-or-treating were in place, but trick-or-treating did not become common practice until the twentieth century. Halloween was not historically associated with Satanism despite Fundamentalists who seem to find Satan around every corner except their own.

Roman Catholics have been, for the most part, friendly to trick-or-treating–even Fr. Gabriel Amroth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist, has no problem with trick-or-treating as long as it is only play. Mainline Protestants also have no problem with celebrating Halloween. But other Protestants and a few rigid Roman Catholics insist that Halloween remains a pagan festival even today that is wrong for Christians to celebrate.

The fallacy in the Fundamentalists’ argument is obvious: they assume that because a certain celebration began as x, it is always x. That is, they assume that if Halloween began as a pagan celebration, then any celebration of Halloween must be a pagan festival. This is a version of the genetic fallacy, which involves the assumption that because a practice originally had one meaning that it necessarily has that same meaning today. This is a common error some Christians (and many others) make, but the conclusion does not follow from the premise.

As a child, I loved trick-0r-treating. As long as precautions are taken against cruel people who would harm children during trick-or-treating, I believe it is a fun activity in which children can engage.