The Psychology of Redemption
March 5th, 2018
Origins for Redemption
The question we ask ourselves is why are we here? We are here to search for meaning. Why is this something that drives human beings? Other animals do not seem to have this level of questioning. So what is it about humans? It has been associated with the word redemption.
People have the need for redemption.
Having a need for redemption is a profound idea. People talk about positive psychology and happiness. The need for redemption is profound, or more profound of a word.
People in Western culture have been meditating on the nature of human being for thousands of years, perhaps even since we became self-conscious. One of the consequences of this meditation has been the production of a series of books known as the Bible.
People see the world through lenses of belief. More recently it has been demonstrated that that is inevitable because you are a limited cognitive processor. You have to frame your perceptions with beliefs. The belief systems that people use to frame their perceptions have a structure and that structure is religious. A religious presupposition is one that you may not even know you make. It is a predicate, and axiom, or on assumption. The study of those axiomatic assumptions is what religion is about.
One of the axiomatic assumptions is that life is a search for meeting and that is redemption.
We ask the question because we are here. What is strange is that we all have asked that question. The fact that all of you have asked that question and human beings have asked that question as far back as we can understand is indicative about something profound about human nature. It is a lack of completion.
The Emergent Property of the Mythological Bible
The Bible represents a theory of redemption that in a sense is emergent. It is a consequence of this insanely complicated cross-generational meditation on the nature of being. It is not designed by any one person. It is designed by processes that we don’t really understand (circumambulation?) because we do not know anything about how books written over thousands of years or what forces cause them to be compiled in a certain way or what narrative direction they tend to take.
One of the things that is strange about the Bible, given that it is a collection of books, is that it actually has a narrative structure. It has a story. That story has been cobbled together. It is like emerged out of the depths. It is not a top-down story; it is a bottom story. I suppose that is why many religions regard the Bible as a book that was "revealed" and was not written. It is a perfectly reasonable presupposition.
It is revealed because it is not a consequence of any one author. It is not written according to a plan. Or not a plan that we can understand. It has a structure. It also has a strange structure. It is full of stories that we cannot forget but also that we cannot understand. The combination of incomprehensible and unforgettable is a strange combination and of course that combination is basically mythological.
Genesis says "why it is" that you need to search for meaning. Genesis, starts out with "the Word of God" creating being from chaos. "The Word" is Logos from a Christian perspective, from a Western perspective, Logos is something like consciousness and something like speech has the power to pull order out of an underlying chaos. Now, we do this all the time. People do this all the time, that’s why, I suppose, we are hypothetically made in the image of God.
We use our consciousness to constantly construct meaning out of chaos according to Genesis.
Once the Logos extracts order out of chaos, it builds a little world. And it populates that world. And in that little world it puts a garden, a walled garden. That is paradise. Because paradise means walled garden. And Eden. Eden means well-watered place. And you may think, why a garden? A garden is the optimal combination of nature and culture. Or chaos and order. Because a garden is where nature flourishes, and also our nature flourishes, in a safe and controlled environment. It is an optimal environment for people. Then it warns them… this is a strange thing. "You are in the garden, that is where you should live, and there is something that you shouldn’t do. And what you shouldn’t do is eat a particular fruit."
The Tower of Babel is a meditation on pride. People build a structure that reaches up to where God is and that is a presumptuous act. One of the warnings is against the sin of pride. It is an intellectual sin and it is associated with the presupposition that you know enough to do without the transcendent.
Sidebar Commentary: According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.
Sidebar Commentary: Oedipus' pride is revealed in his belief that he is greater than the gods. He believes that he is capable of establishing his own destiny apart from the gods' control or help. Othello suffers from the hamartia of pride, stemming from his insecurity concerning his appearance and social graces.
The biblical story state very clearly that it is catastrophically dangerous. You always have to be aware that there is something transcendent that supersedes your domain of knowledge. People who do not believe that are totalitarians because they believe their belief is total. We know what happens when people become totalitarian. Is it instant creation of something on earth that closely resembles hell. That was hammered home in the 20th century. If you want to derive one lesson from the 20th century it is that totalitarian states and totalitarian ideologies are not a good way to entrap or search after meaning. That is a mistake.
Floods and New Beginnings
Before the flood is prehistory. After the flood is a new beginning. That is when history starts from a biblical perspective (and new myths emerge, out of the old ones). That is when the old testament lays itself out. It is kind of a classic hero myth, a hero myth that is associated with the establishment of states. Generally speaking, when societies mythologize their beginning of their state they imagine a set of heroes (individuals heroes being a collection of multiple people or ideas).
The founders of the state are mythologized as the great heroes of the past. We see this was George Washington and the founding fathers. It is the great heroes of the past, the forefathers, who established the state. They imagine a set of heroes. It happens automatically. Of course that is true, and there were millions of them, but you cannot tell a story about millions of people. So all the actions of those millions of people are collapsed and condensed and compressed and put into a fiction that is more real than the truth that describes the patterns that characterizes have a state was founded.
Something always happens as this state is established. The state is established and then people get off course. And the leadership gets off course. And the state collapses into a state of chaos. And then there is a prophetic revelation warning of that danger. And then there is a terrible period of chaotic disruption. And then there is the regeneration of the state. That story is foreshadowed in the old testament by Exodus, the Moses story: * Egypt is a tyranny. * A leader rises up to pull everyone out of tyranny. * There is a terrible chaotic interlude, the wandering in the desert. * And then there is the reestablishment of the state.
That is an archetypical pattern. This happens to all of us.
The pattern is: * You are in your system of belief * Something arises analogous to a snake to disrupt it, because the state is insufficiently adapting to its environment. * It does not have all the answers * It ages and becomes corrupt. * And then there is collapse.
And collapse is a catastrophe.
This happens whenever your dreams are shattered or when you encounter a great tragedy. Things are always going wrong and we are always wandering in the desert looking for a better state. It is impossible not to be in that story. This ends with Job.
Anything terrible that can happen to any person happens to Job. Job is in a final state of unreformed being. The state is not the answer. So if being is order, and being is chaos, and chaos is intolerable, and the state order is not the answer then what do you have left? That is what the question the New Testament attempts to solve.
One of the problems with the Soviet Union was their inability to correct errors. When you start out with an a-priori hypothesis about what constitutes the truth and that structures your life then it is very difficult to make the micro-corrections a state has to make on a continual basis in order to remain dynamic and fluid (John Boyd "Boydian" adaption to the environment as the world unfolds around you).
So, for example, if you are having a conversation with your wife or a friend, a difficult conversation, there is a couple of ways that conversation can go. One is you can take your viewpoint and impose it upon that person. And often when people are talking that is what they are trying to do. They are not having a conversation (or a Socratic or Aristotelian process of inquiry). What they are doing is they are trying to impose a viewpoint they already hold dear on the person that is listening. And if they are a tyrant or a bully they will do that and pay no attention whatsoever to the person’s response and in fact they will get irritated or violent if the person does not accept their a priori framing. Is there an alternative?
The alternative is to pay attention and to listen on the off chance that the person you are talking to might tell you something you do not know. But in order to listen you must be already convinced that the little theory you are using to orient yourself in the world is not good enough, because if it was good enough why would you bother listening. So, in order to stay adapted to reality not only do you have to have a viewpoint but you have to engage in the process of modifying that viewpoint. And the way you engage in the process of modifying that viewpoint: Continual minor adjustments as a consequence of paying attention (i.e., observation and orientation). You have to be deeply aware of your own ignorance. And that is what humility means. It does not mean to slink around in an ashamed manner. It means to make the presupposition that you many have something left to learn and that this annoying person in front of you might have something to teach you if you would just listen.
When somebody is trying to impose if you point on you they are not paying attention (i.e., re-orientating). What you need to do is say, "Oh I see, there is a micro-correction that I need to make in one of the peripheral elements of my belief." And that is a little painful. It means you have to let something go — your presumption, and you have to be a little chaotic as you adjust to the new information, and you have to reconstitute yourself. What that means is that you need to make a sacrifice.
Death and Rebirth
When you make micro-corrections (i.e., reorienting) you are making the right kind of sacrifices and that means your model stays up-to-date. There are things that you can do to your being that can change the nature of reality. And if you do them properly then you can make reality better. You have to sacrifice ideas that you hold dear in order to progress. Because the ideas that you hold dear are exactly what it is that makes you suffer if you are suffering. The consequence of that is you enter a little period of chaos. This is like a little bit of death and rebirth. It’s like the Phoenix. The phoenix dissolves itself into ashes then pops back up as a new bird.
(One of the things that happens in the Old Testament all the time is that people are making sacrifices to God and modern people they have no idea, "why does god want burnt lamb smoke?" It is not obvious to modern people, but our ancestors were not stupid. They were dramatizing something. They were dramatizing this tremendous realization that no other creature has ever managed, which is that there are things that you can do to your being that change the nature of reality. And if you do them properly you can make reality better. It’s mind boggling and they acted that out because they didn’t really understand it. They noticed that if things were not going right you had to sacrifice something valuable and that seemed to make God happy. Well, it might have been a first-born calf or a first-born son for that matter. For modern people it is more like an idea. You have to sacrifice an idea that you hold dear in order to progress, because the ideas that you hold dear are exactly what are you making you suffer if you are suffering. So you have to sacrifice them and then you have to let them go and the consequence of that is that you enter into this little period of chaos and then maybe you pop out of that and that is a good thing. And so, here is an interesting observation: that process of being in a state and identifying an error and correcting it, that is a little death and rebirth. That’s like the phoenix. The phoenix dissolves itself into ashes then pops back up as a new bird.)
What does it mean when a person continually dies and becomes reborn? It means that redemption itself is not the consequence of being in a state. It is the consequence of participating in a process. The process is the willingness to continually have yourself sacrificed, chaotic, and reborn. It keeps things alive.
Passion Story Ideas
The story of Christ is predicated on the assumption that the person who is making the ultimate sacrifices performs a number of acts or undergoes a number of processes and one is a disciplined apprenticeship. So, for example, in order to have some ideas that you can let go and reconstitute you have to have some ideas. You can’t just be all chaotic and unformed
Christ is a master of tradition, master of the law. You half to have discipline, you have to be master of something before you are formed at all. You have to be imbued with the spirit of your ancestors. You have to take on that burden.
To rescue your father means to make peace with your culture and to embody it. And not to assume that it is absolute. It is a necessary process of discipline.
Another idea in the New Testament is the sacrifice of yourself to God. It is a very sophisticated idea. In the old testament there is a constant sacrificing of something else. This requires a different order of being. God is the ultimate value. You do not know what the ultimate value is. But it is named. The Israelites had an unnamed God. To sacrifice yourself to God is the same thing as determining that your life will be guided by an unshakable commitment to the highest good. It is no longer your state or your ego that is in charge. It is no longer you that is in charge. It means that your conversations with people is no longer about convincing them that your viewpoint is right. It means that your conversation is about attempting to represent what you believe to be true in the most concise and clear possible manner no matter what. That is not how people live.
People live in a sense of conniving. The conniving is an idea that the world should be the way I want it to be (Art of the Advantage): I have a theory about how I want it to be and I am going to enforce that theory and I am going to be very angry when the world does not respond the way I want it to. And maybe I will be violent as a consequence of it. And I have some sense of where I am headed (wealth, retirement). And that is how I am going to be redeemed. And that is a narrow and totalitarian viewpoint. Then you sacrifice everything to that. That turns out to be a very bad idea because things do not turn out the way that you want them. You want sacrifice to make things better. Tell what is true.
If you tell the truth, things that are better will happen. Because you do not know what is better. You do not have the capacity to fully realize what would constitute bette — we see that in the 20th century over and over. People aimed a circumscribed definition of what constitutes the utopian state. And all we get out of that is endless hell. We have to pursue good but we do not know what good is. So how do we remove ourselves from that Paradox?
It is not a matter of gathering more knowledge. It is a matter of approaching reality in a new manner. What you aim at determines the nature of your world. To aim wrong, that is sin. There is a definition in archery — "Sin" — that means missing the target, and that is what sin means.
If you are not in a state of grace then your aim is wrong. Or maybe the world is constituted badly and it is hell-bent on torturing you. How do you aim?
Once you get your aim right and you tell the truth, then all you have to do is concentrate on your day.
Sermon on the Mount
People take the sermon on the mount as being nonsensical but there are a whole bunch of presuppositions in there. You are aiming at perfection. You are not trying to get other people to do it, you are aiming at it. (i.e., Arete, "excellence").
You are reconstituting your actions and your speech to aim at that. Then, you let that take you wherever it will go. And that is the sacrifice of self to God. The truth is a representation of whatever constitutes reality. To follow that means to follow something that’s transcendent, because whatever reality is it’s certainly not something that you are individually responsible for creating even though you might participate in that process. To speak the truth is to be guided by being. That’s a completely different mode of being.
We are in a state of constant unredeemed suffering. You cannot even imagine a state that could address that. It is just too big of a problem. There is another inference in the New Testament and it is a hypothesis of the meta-state. A life that is predicated on constant death and renewal at every level of being, a life that is predicated on the search for the truth and to act out on the truth, and a life that is associated with sacrifice to God produces a state of being that is so deeply meaningful that it justifies suffering. It does not eliminate suffering, there is no elimination of suffering.
He who has a why can bear any how.
Heaven on Earth
The absurd aim posited him in the New Testament: Participation in the process that transforms earth into heaven, the generation of the kingdom of God on earth.
This means that the state of being that is described by the parameters that has already been laid out (The willingness to engage in eternal sacrifice of death and renewal, and sacrifice of the self to the highest value) produces a state of being, subjectively, that is associated with the habitation in the kingdom of God. And the actions that are conducted in that state are what transform the interpersonal state into the political state that is manifestation of that kingdom.
When you have a deeply meaningful conversation with someone you change them and you change your self. The process that you are engaged in while you have that deeply meaningful conversation… that is a mode of being. You can tell when you are in that state. You are not self-conscious, time disappears. What you are engaged in is deeply meaningful… you do not bear the tragic burden of life in that moment. What you are doing is so worthwhile that it consumes you completely. When you are in it you think, there is nothing better than that.
Sidebar Commentary: It’s not just deeply meaningful conversations, but it is also the physical (e.g., Martial Arts).
These look like existential realities. They are not hypothetical states and they are not shoved off into some transcendent heaven. They are not other-worldly. They are part of being itself. People can enter states of heaven and hell. And they can learn to stay longer in one state or another. So why don't they stay in the best possible state?
Commitment of Faith
It is very terrifying to let go of the direction of your life. I am going to go wherever speaking the truth will take me and God only knows where I will end up. And it is certainly not where you think. The willingness to abandon to go where you think is a prerequisite for doing this. You are a ship that takes you wherever the wind will take (i.e., don’t try to swim against the river to get out, let the river take you downstream and swim at an angle to get out).
It is a real responsibility. In order to undertake this process you have to come to terms with what it is that you have to do in your life. That really matters. When people complain about meaninglessness in their life, that is kind of a face-saving illusion. People are more afraid of meaning then meaninglessness. Meaninglessness means I can do whatever I want, "it might be dull and second rate but I can still do whatever I want, and I do not need to take responsibility because I do not mean anything". I am not responsible to anything or anyone. But if my life has meaning and it does not always have meaning — it has meaning when you are doing something meaningful — well then all of the sudden you are responsible to a higher power so to speak, you are responsible to your own soul, and your responsible to the state of being that characterizes the world itself. And that is a massive responsibility.
In a sense, it is to take responsibility for the sins of the world. The redeemer takes on the sins of the world. To take on the sins of the world means to realize that all those things that characterize the human capacity to turn Earth into Hell characterize you (i.e., you cannot exist outside the whole). And in order to live properly you have to live in a manner that addresses those elements of your nature. That is a terrible responsibility. First of all, who wants to admit that? Second of all. who can stand looking at it? And third of all, who is going to take on the burden of solving it? It better be all of us or we are just going to keep doing it.
Redemption. What does it mean? It means you are not in a state of grace.
Why? We are self-conscious, we are aware of the tragedy of our being; we are unwilling to take full responsibility for it or we are ignorant about how to do that and that leaves us bereft. How do we solve that? We can solve that with a state but the problem is that the state is not reliable. It degenerates into tyranny and then it transforms into chaos, then it reconstitutes itself and does the same thing again.
The state is not a good answer. Is there another answer? Well, maybe. I believe what is outlined in the narrative form in the new testament is psychologically correct. I believe that the idea of mindless micro-death and -renewal produces a state of proper adaptation to being (i.e., constant observation and reorientation). And the prerequisites for that, laid out in the narrative structure that underlies the New Testament, are fundamentally correct. To be redeemed is to aim at the highest value, to sacrifice what is no longer useful and valid in yourself, and to tell the truth. And a consequence of that is existence in a deep state of meaning that justifies the tragedy of being and the possibility of transforming your own life in the most beneficial positive direction while simultaneously doing that for the people around you.
And that is redemption.
The Allegory of Redemption by Jacopo Ligozzi. Image from Wikipedia.org