Sunday, 29 November 2015

Supernatural help in relation to spiritual progress (as the main aim in mortal life) - wants versus needs

People often, quite reasonably, find it bizarre and puzzling that humans do not get a lot more in the way of supernatural help in life.

If, as many Christians believe, the main aim in life really is salvation - i.e. to be saved from a default state of damnation - then it seems reasonable to suppose that the more supernatural help people have, the better it would be; and that all possible threats to salvation should be intercepted by supernatural aid; whether direct from God the Father, Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost - or via the work of angels.

If salvation really is the goal of life, then life can be seen metaphorically as a rescue - helping people out of a pit; or as preventing people from falling back into a pit once they have climbed-out - and if the pit is seen as a place of eternal torment and misery, it seems hard to understand why supernatural assistance in escaping or avoiding an (unfenced) pit would not be obvious and abundant.

And the fact that most Christians do not experience moment by moment (nor even day by day) help from supernatural interventions, even when damnation is threatened, is apparently explicable (assuming that God is Good) only on the basis that people do not deserve to have help (i.e. some version of the doctrine of original sin).


But if, alternatively, salvation is seen as already having been given by the work of Christ (importantly, on condition that we accept this gift, via repentance - which of course does not-at-all-always happen; so salvation is not universal); then mortal life is seen as a matter of spiritual development.

[Spiritual development or progression is also called sanctification (becoming more saint-like), theosis (becoming more God-like), or divinization (developing our potentially divine nature to higher levels).]

If mortal life as seen (as I personally see it) as primarily about spiritual development, and since the human spirit is (for Christians) a free agent, capable of choice and learning; then an educational (not rescue) metaphor applies to mortal life. Mortal life becomes analogous to an apprenticeship or a school or college - in which the goal is to develop an advanced skill.

By such an account, supernatural agents are like the teachers - and the task is for them to bring the apprentices or students to an extremely high level of skill - ultimately equalling and potentially surpassing their own.

For such an ideal teacher, there is such a thing as excessive intervention, of teaching too much and in too specific a detail. (And by analogy, there is such a thing as too much supernatural intervention.)

The ideal teacher does not want mere obedience to a set of rules and practices; the ideal teacher wants to use the student's inner motivation to develop his ability to evaluate the situation, to make decisions and implement them, and then to evaluate the outcome to judge what further changes may be needed. In sum the student must take responsibility for his own learning - and this will not happen is the teacher is continually 'breathing down the neck' of the student.

So a wise teacher of a motivated pianist will aim to point-out only those technical errors that are dead-ends or will lead to problems in the future. Th teacher will not try to dictate all decisions all the time.

Thus the good teacher does not aspire to sit continuously with his pupil correcting and intervening every few seconds; but to give specific and concentrated and intermittent guidance - and then have the student go-off to grapple with the problem in his own way and as best he may. The ratio of explicit teaching to individual grappling with problems (aka 'practice') is very small - maybe one hour of teaching to dozens of hours of solo practice.

This, in a nutshell, is why most of us do not experience continuous, nor even frequent, divine guidance in our lives - because the main thing in life is our individual taking of responsibility for our lives - grappling, making mistakes, then detecting and trying to correct them; then moving on (and up) to repeat the process in (never ending) cycles of ascent and progression. 

The best way to learn, probably the only way truly to learn;  is for the student to grapple with and solve problems for himself, including making mistakes - because that kind of learning is deep, it is primary; and it enables the student to take over and teach himself - and to become an autonomous agent.

The best way for Man to live his mortal life, probably the only way for Man to live as a Man; is for him to grapple with and solve problems for himself , including making mistakes. That is the path of theosis.


Some supernatural intervention is helpful, and sometimes it is essential - when someone is making the same mistake over and over again; or when someone is headed-off down a blind alley, or into disaster.

But, as with a piano pupil, all teaching must voluntarily be accepted and embraced by the student if it is to be effective. Teaching which is coercively-imposed is, indeed, an impossiblity - since Men just are by their nature autonomus agents with free will.

Since we are - at this stage - weak creatures; we nearly always want and ask for more help, more divine assistance, than is good for us. College students mostly want to get 'detailed feedback' on their essays, which amounts to telling them exactly 'how to get high marks' if they only obey the instructions, and copy-out the advice.

But what such students want is not what is good for them, nor is it effective in building ability. What they need is to work from genuine motivation (and if this is lacking, then nothing genuine can be done); to grapple with the problems, and evaluate the reasons for imperfections and failures of their own work; to understand what went wrong, and try again. Ideally, students may learn the skills, and may become self-teachers - and then potentially teachers of others.


This, I think, is why Christians do not receive very-frequent or obvious supernatural help; because if we are indeed living this life mostly for reasons of spiritual progression, then it would be bad for us (harmful) to be in a situation of merely doing what God (or the angels) told us to do at a minute and moment by moment level.

For then we would not be learning, we would indeed be learning not-to-learn.

We know (and this is faith, and explains why faith is essential) that God is Good and Loves us as individual persons and as Men - so the basic set-up of life must be for our benefit.

We have been given general rules of how to proceed; and we have the assurance that when help is really helpful - if we ask, it will certainly be given.

But if we ask for 'help' and it is not given; then there are Good and Loving reasons (which we probably will not understand exactly, at our stage in development - just as a junior apprentice may not understand why his Master forbids him some kind of superficially effective technique that will lead to trouble later) why this kind of help, at this time, would actually be harmful to us.

Thus, understanding our mortal life as primarily about spiritual development (rather than focused on salvation) may help us to clarify the nature of genuinely-hepful supernatural assistance that we can expect and will happen when requested; and that kind of pseudo-helpful but actually-harmful interference that we should not expect and will not happen.

It is a matter of the difference, familiar to all real teachers, of distinguishing between what the student wants versus what the student needs.


Note added: The above is a frame, by-which and through-which to understand life. It is, in other words, a metaphysical system. For a Christian, this metaphysical system is not arbitrary but a reasonable - not inevitable - consequence of the basic and essential Christian belief in the Goodness and personal love of God, and its implications for this life on the assumption that it was set up by our loving God and for our ultimate good. As such, it cannot be challenged by specific pieces of evidence - metaphysics just is not challenged by specific pieces of evidence, because it frames the evidence, and makes sense of, gives meaning, to evidence. If you do suppose that you are indeed judging a metaphysical system by specific pieces of evidence, then you are making a rational-error; and actually merely using a different metaphysical system but without being aware of it. A metaphysical system can only properly be judged by comparison with another metaphysical system; and to do this, you must become aware 1. that you have metaphysical beliefs, 2. what these are; and 3. that these beliefs are not inevitable but are a choice (although not necessarily, nor usually, a conscious choice).