Saints

This blog has its own canonization policy: every serious Christian, whom I refer to by name in the 3rd person, is a "Saint" (e.g. St. Faraday).  I will try to give them this title on the first mention in any blog post; if I forget (or if I refer to someone without realizing they are a Christian) feel free to tell me!

This policy is inspired by how the word "saints" was used in the early church to refer to ordinary Christians, e.g. St. Paul addresses one of his letters to "the saints in Ephesus", meaning every person in the congregation.  It emphasizes the fact that the Holy Spirit dwells inside every person who gives their life over to Jesus in order to become one of his Fathers's children.

You may ask, who am I to judge whether someone is really a Christian or not?  The answer is that I am nobody, but this blog is a statement of my own personal opinions, so there.  According to St. Paul, we are responsible for judging people who claim to be in the Church, but it is none of our business to judge people outside of it.  If I do not call someone a saint, it might well still be the case that they have a holiness inside them, which I don't perceive.  That is between them and God.

The Hebrew word qadosh means something sacred which is set apart and dedicated to God's service, while the English translation holy is related to `whole' and `wholesome'.  In its most proper sense, holiness is a property of God alone, and expresses that he is Good, not just in some conscientious ethical sense, but in the sense of a numinous, awe-inspiring Otherness which, for those fortunate enough to experience it, overpowers us with its majestic glory and weightiness.   The bodies of the "saints" are living Temples in which the Holy One dwells, and we become holy in a derivative sense, sanctified because of his presence inside of us.

Imagine a pond, which has some sort of flowers growing on its surface (a little like water lilies).  Most of these flowers float aimlessly on the surface, but some of them grow stems downwards into the water.  This makes them rather awkwardly shaped at first, but when the stems reach the ground, they attach to the solid earth underneath.  From then on, the flowers share in the Solidity of the ground beneath.  They no longer drift with the surface currents, and they receive nutrients from below as well as above.  This is only an analogy, but perhaps it gives an idea of the kind of difference that holiness makes to a life.

When I call all Christians saints, this is to bring home the awareness of this astonishing fact.  It is not intended to deny that we all struggle in many ways with sin and bad habits, grieving his Spirit, and that we are therefore in constant need of forgiveness, from God and from one another.

Nor is it intended to deny that some people, because of their fellowship with Jesus, through suffering and joy, become especially holy in a way that serves as a special example of holiness to the rest of us.  I think of St. "Father John", the priest of Holy Trinity Orthodox church of Santa Fe, who cannot be in the same room with anyone without expressing deep love for them.

Nor do I mean to imply that only religious people can be ethical—if by ethics, one means a conscientious effort to be courageous, kind, honest, generous and self-controlled.  However, nonreligious people cannot be, and are not even trying to be, holy in the sense described above—unless indeed they have a relationship with God without knowing it.  (For we must never forget, that even before a person has a relationship with God, God is still having a relationship with them.  Like a host at a party, he provides them with food, drink, and entertainment, and if they happen to be ungrateful or mistreat the other guests, he takes it personally.)  For Christians, ethics comes out of holiness, because of God's love for us; it does not come out of conscientiousness.  That is the most important distinction between religious and nonreligious ethics.

Most of the above is taken from a post written on this blog's first All Saints Day.

9 Responses to Saints

  1. TY says:

    Yes, I agree with the convention of referring to a Christian in the 3rd person as a saint. In a your "Post Comment" I did address you incorrectly in the second person as St Aron. We (Anglicans) follow the same convention and have no issues referring to other Christians in the third person as saints, following the Pauline tradition.

  2. RAY TSCHORN says:

    THANK YOU

  3. Kaveh says:

    Religion has nothing to do with morality. This is a dirty myth that has been fed to many people that the foundation of true morality or ethics is god, absurd in short. In strong contrast of your point of view, I see many religious people as absolutely immoral and badly aggressive (be a Christian, Muslim ...).

    Please show me just and just one example in the whole history of religion (Christianity in your case) that people can agree on one issue, whatever?
    Attributes of allegedly mighty god? Is he in time or outside of it? Even believers can’t find a definitive and convincing answer to any question they debate about it (let alone non-believers).

    Finally a question for you Aron : can you define me in coherent and non-contradictory way the concept of god? Consider that none could do that so far.
    Looking forward to your reply

  4. Aron Wall says:

    Kaveh,
    Actually, I agree with you that many religious people are evil. (In fact, the main Christian story in the Gospels involves an atrocity being done in the name of religion.) But I fail to see why the fact that some people use religion as a cover for wrongdoing should detract from the people who are inspired by religion to do good things.

    Anyway, I will answer your questions if you answer mine:

    1. Can you define your phrase "absolutely immoral" in a way that 100% of all English-speaking adults would agree with your definition?
    2. If you are unable to give such a definition, would it follow that immorality does not exist?

  5. Kaveh says:

    Hi Aron.
    Thanks for your comments. Invoking religion as a foundation for morality as conceived by some people in order to do good things and avoid evil actions is more than welcome, I see no problem if this foundation is religion but history of religion says something completely different. Anyway I strongly believe good people are good regardless that they are religious or not.

    Absolutely in phrase (is utilized for emphasizing a fact) refers to those people whose actions devoid of any moral and ethical criteria and there are plenty of such evil people in the world. I guess every English-speaking people agree on mentioned simple definition!!

  6. Aron Wall says:

    Kaveh,
    In order to answer my question, you need to define the term "immoral" as well as the term "absolutely". Since your proposed definition of immorality itself refers to the word "moral", it is a circular definition that is of no use for deciding whether a given action is evil or not. For this reason I, an adult English speaker, do not agree with your definition and hence it doesn't meet my criterion.

    Please give me a non-circular definition of morality, one that you could use to decide whether any given act is moral or immoral, in a "coherent and non-contradictory" fashion, in such a way that 100% of adult English speakers would agree with your definition.

    Or you could admit that 100% agreement is a silly criterion to use when judging a religious tradition with over 2 billion people in it. There is not even 100% agreement by all humans that the Earth is not flat! So why would you expect people who call themselves Christians (and anyone can call themselves a Christian if they feel like, regardless of what they believe or don't believe) to have 100% agreement on anything?

  7. Kaveh says:

    Debate about the definition of morality and immorality and the foundation of morality is out of scope of this page. Briefly speaking, when I told that 100% of people should agree on something. First of all by people I mean experts (theologians or philosophers of religion) not laymen. There is not even a little problem in philosophy of religion on which majority of people, not 100% of people agree. You intentionally or unintentionally misinterpreates my statements.
    Second : let me put the burden of proof on your shoulders to define the concept of morality and its negation . I asked you two questions and it seems you have no interests to struggle with them!!!

  8. Aron Wall says:

    Dear Kaveh,
    You were the one that brought up the foundations of morality in your initial comment---it's a little surprising you think it's off topic for this page, now that I ask you about it!

    Anyway, since you did not answer my questions in good faith, I am not going to answer yours either. All I am doing is reflecting your skepticism back at you---I know you don't like it, but as Socrates showed, this is actually a necessary step before my answers would make sense! I'd actually love to have a serious conversation about this if I thought you were genuninely interested in hearing my answers, but I doubt we can have a productive conversation right now if you demand answers but are unwilling to provide any yourself. Have a nice day, and the door is always open if you change your mind.

  9. Scott Church says:

    Hello Kaveh,

    I'm not sure what makes the relationship between religion and morality "a dirty myth," and I have no idea why you would imagine that "what 100% of all English-speaking adults would agree with" should be part of a discussion about anything whatsoever. There isn't even 100% agreement on the shape of the earth (much less subjects as subtle as theology and moral philosophy), but it hardly follows that planet earth doesn't exist and nothing is known about its shape.

    To me at least, you don't seem to have a grasp of any of the fundamental issues here. To begin with, who is or is not "immoral and badly aggressive" has absolutely nothing to do with anything. No reasonable person disputes that religion doesn't necessarily make one moral, nor that atheism makes one immoral. These are straw men invented by anti-religion activists, largely because they're the only claims they know how to address. The fundamental issue isn't who/what is moral, but whether the very concept of morality has meaning in a materialistic universe.

    Pause for a moment and reflect not on whether this or that behavior is moral, but what we mean when we use that word. Broadly speaking, "Good" and "bad" are value judgments, so morality ultimately boils down to questions of value and purpose. For instance, most of us consider it evil to murder our neighbor but not to swat a mosquito. That's because we consider human life to be more precious than the lives of mosquitos. Likewise, in work and other social obligations, we consider a dereliction of duty to be wrong because we believe we're intended for some larger purpose--to fulfill obligations to ourselves and others. Now, consideration and intent are fundamentally mental qualities. Outside of self-aware reflective minds to hold them, they have no meaning. The Higgs boson doesn't value or intend anything. It just obeys some differential equations and boundary conditions and does what it does... period. The universe doesn't give a shit whether we exist or not, and at any time could randomly send an asteroid the size of Texas into the Pacific Ocean 1500 miles due southeast of Guam, erase us, and start over. As Richard Dawkins put it in River out of Eden, from a purely materialistic perspective, everything in the universe, including you and I, is nothing more than a consequence of "blind, pitiless indifference."

    This raises a dilemma... The only minds known to exist are ours (and perhaps other equally accidental minds the blind universe evolved on other worlds somewhere out there), and nothing in nature endows yours, mine, or anyone else's with any objectively normative authority. Beyond that, atheism is committed to the belief no other mind exists. It follows directly and necessarily that morality is either purely relative or nihilistic.

    So... when we say some action is "absolutely" immoral we are not saying that everyone agrees, any more than we would say that the earth is spherical because we think "100% of all English-speaking adults" agree that it is. What we mean is that it is so objectively and normatively regardless of whether anyone agrees with that or not. But in a materialistic universe, there's no rational basis for that. You and I can live moral lives according to what we deem to be right, but we have no right whatsoever to think our values are in any way binding on anyone else. I believe that rape and murder are wrong, but if the guy across the street believes he has a right to rape my fiance and daughter and murder them with a blowtorch for kicks, I have no grounds to say his actions are objectively wrong, any more than I have grounds to say he's wrong to think that brunettes are hotter than blondes. In a materialistic worldview righteous anger is an irrational emotion.

    If you dispute that and believe that neither God nor any other mind beyond those that arose from evolution has anything to do with normative morality, then you must demonstrate how blind, pitiless indifference can render anything at all precious and meaningful. That has never been done, and not for a lack of trying. Until it is, we can all argue about what is/is not moral until the cows come home. But even if 100% of all English-speaking adults do come to an agreement, the end result will be no different than People magazine picking a new "sexiest man alive" every twelve months. This is hardly what most of us have in mind when we think of righteous anger.

    -----------------------------------------------

    Regarding an "allegedly mighty god" and your request for a concept of such, I must say that your comments display a profound lack of understanding not only of classical theism but philosophy of religion in general. It would appear that your training in them doesn't go beyond limited armchair exposure in popular new-atheist agitprop books and/or chat rooms. I would encourage you to study them at a deeper level--Not because I'm convinced that doing so would change your views, but so that wherever they end up, they would be better informed and on solid ground.

    To that end, you could do worse than to start with my post on classical theism and the comment thread it generated. From there, you could delve into the sources cited therein. Actually, the subject is a lot more interesting than they might seem at first blush, and if you give it a chance I think you'll enjoy it. :-)

    Best.

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