In the last episode, we talked about some spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are rituals some people use to develop a deeper connection with God, a personal connection and a personal experience of God in their own lives. We talked about a number of spiritual disciplines people use, but there’s one we didn’t talk about—meditation. We didn’t talk about it for a reason.
In many versions of Christianity, meditation is seen to be specifically unchristian. That’s because usually, when we think of meditation, we think of sitting alone in a quiet room and concentrating hard, going into almost a trance-like state. We might think of someone sitting on the floor, deep in thought, maybe repeating one phrase over and over again. Meditation, done like that, is something many Christians associate with other religions, not with Christianity, and that's how I think meditation has often gotten a bad name within Christianity. To many people, it seems unchristian.
But the word meditation, taken out of the context of how people might think of it, technically means "to think about something in a serious, concentrated way." So that’s how I’d like for us to approach Christian meditation—using our minds and really thinking hard about Christianity.
Thinking hard about Christianity in a serious way means thinking about it in the sense of dissecting it and thinking about it logically.
When we dissect something and think about it logically, we use what is called our power of reason. Reason is our ability to think about and understand things; our ability to think in logical steps and come to a conclusion.
We can think of Christian meditation as using our power of reason to think about Christianity—thinking in logical steps and coming to conclusions. I believe that's what Christian meditation really is.
After all, God created us with the ability to reason, to think logically and come to conclusions. Since He gave us that ability, it's reasonable to believe He intended for us to use it.
However, traditionally within Christianity, people have not been encouraged to think logically and come to conclusions. Quite the contrary. Within Christianity people have been encouraged to accept and believe what they're told and not to question it or think about it.
Christianity has too often said, "Don't try to think about it. Don't try to use your power of reason to understand. Just accept what you're told."
Why is that so? If God gave us the ability to think logically and come to conclusions, why have Christians been encouraged not to do it, at least in regard to Christianity?
Well, it all started back about 1600 years ago with a man named Augustine and his doctrine of original sin. We’ve talked about that many times before, and I’ve said it is the foundational doctrine of Christianity, the one doctrine upon which all others are based. That’s why we keep coming back to it again and again, because practically all of Western Christianity is based on it.
Basically, the doctrine of original sin states that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden that God told them not to eat, as punishment, God changed something about human nature. God made human nature corrupted to its very core. God destroyed anything good that was in human beings and made it so that all that was inside human beings was corruption, incapable of any good whatsoever. God made it so that all people who would come after Adam and Eve would also be 100% corrupt, incapable of any good whatsoever.
Augustine came up with this idea, and he said that this corruption pollutes every aspect of our being. It even corrupted our power of reason to the point where we are not able to imagine or conceive of anything about God. The way Augustine saw it, God completely shut us off from Him, He put a big wall between us, so that we can't even imagine God. God corrupted our reason and our power of thinking so that we have no ability to think about God and come to any conclusions about God. Based on that, there's no use in trying to use reason to think about God. If you do, you'll only be led astray and come to wrong conclusions. In fact, if you try to think about God, wrong conclusions is all you can come up with.
The Roman Catholic Church accepted Augustine's ideas about original sin, but they made an exception. They said that there is a small group of people to whom this idea of original sin applies, but it applies less to them than to the general population. That group of people, as you might guess, is the hierarchy of officials of the Roman Catholic Church. The idea was that priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, and certain others, while affected by original sin, are not as affected as the general population. They are on another level, a special level, just for them.
According to this idea, there are two classes of people. First, there is the general population. They are so corrupted by original sin that their ability to use reason to think about God is nonexistent. But then there's the second group, the people in the hierarchy of the church. They are affected by original sin, but not to the point that they can’t use reason to develop knowledge about God. They are the only people who have the ability to think about God and come to right conclusions. They do that and then pass that on to the general population. So in essence, the Catholic Church did not deny it was possible to use reason to develop beliefs about God, they just said that ability is limited to a small, select group of people.
So, this small, select group of people used reason to think about God and develop beliefs, and the beliefs they developed can be loosely labeled as "church tradition." Those are beliefs that people within the church hierarchy developed, and they continue to develop them today.
And so basically, in the West, the Catholic Church told people their power of reason was so corrupted by original sin that they couldn't think about God without being led astray, but they didn't have to worry about it. The church officials, who could think about God without being led astray, would tell them all they needed to know. For the next 1100 years or so, people in Western Christianity were told they didn't need to use their power of reason to think about God. The church would tell them all they needed to know.
But then the Protestant Reformation came along. The Protestant Reformation emphasized the idea of original sin even more than the Catholics did, and at first, they didn't accept the Catholic idea that there were some people in a special category that could use reason to develop beliefs. They felt all people were so corrupted by original sin that no one could know anything about God by using their intellect. The Reformation idea was that everyone is so thoroughly corrupted by original sin that no one can form a concept of God in their mind using the power of reason.
They said that the only way we can have any knowledge of God is if God works a miracle and implants that knowledge inside us Himself. But this is something God does, not something we arrive at by using our minds.
There's no use in thinking or trying to figure anything out because your mind is so corrupted you have no hope in doing that. You just have to hope God will implant something in your mind.
The Reformation leaders went on to develop beliefs that were somewhat different from Catholic beliefs. But, since they accepted the idea that said our power of reason was so corrupted by original sin that we could never understand anything about God ourselves, they had to have some kind of objective authority outside themselves for the new beliefs they developed. They claimed Scripture as that authority. They pointed to certain Catholic beliefs and said, "This is contrary to scripture. See, here is what scripture says. We will take our beliefs from scripture, not from what the Catholic Church says."
They said the only way we can know and understand God is through Scripture, and they coupled that with the idea that if we have any knowledge of God at all, God has to first implant that in us, and said that when we read or hear Scripture, God works inside us to make it possible for us to understand. Be sure and realize they emphasized it is not our power of reason that makes us capable of understanding Scripture; it is God working inside us, implanting it inside us.
Because they claimed Scripture as the authority for the beliefs they developed, they encouraged people to read Scripture for themselves and see how the beliefs of the Reformation were supported by Scripture and how Catholic beliefs were opposed to Scripture.
But their emphasis on Scripture let the cat out of the bag. People did start reading Scripture, probably for the first time in Western Christianity. The Reformers told people that when they read it, God would work inside them allowing them to understand its meaning. So people read it. The problem was that they got lots of different meanings from it, meanings that were different than what the Reformation leaders were saying. This backed them into a corner so that eventually, they had to say exactly what the Catholics said that they had earlier rejected—"Don't think about it. We will tell you what you should believe."
In fact, John Calvin went so far as to say that when you read Scripture, the way you can know if you are thinking about it correctly is if your interpretation agrees with his. If your interpretation agrees with his, then you know God has worked in you, allowing you to understand it. But if your interpretation did not agree with his, then obviously God has not worked within you, and you have been led astray.
The situation in Western Christianity, at least in "official" Western Christianity, is that Christianity has always been an authoritarian religion. You are supposed to believe what someone else tells you. You're not supposed to worry about thinking about God or trying to understand anything. Somebody else will do that and tell you what you should believe.
That's why thinking in logical steps and coming to conclusions about God has been discouraged in Western Christianity. That's why meditation has been discouraged in Western Christianity—you might think about it and come to different conclusions than what you're told you should believe. Western Christianity has always been an authoritarian system in which you’re supposed to believe what you're told, and thinking on your own has been discouraged.
So let’s look at some examples of the results of using our power of reason to think about the things we're told we should believe. Let's think logically about some beliefs Christians are told they should have and see what happens.
One popular belief in Christianity is that God rewards those who please Him and punishes those who don't. This belief is accepted in many versions of Christianity. The idea is that if you have deep faith in God and live a life pleasing to God, God will make your life good. God will give you good health, success in life, your children will be healthy and grow up to have good lives, all kinds of good things will be in your life.
The way to have a good life, then, is to have deep faith in God and please God. Many people accept that belief without thinking about it, and it might seem reasonable to accept that belief, if we don't spend too much time thinking about it.
We take a quick look around us, and we see someone who has deep faith in God and lives a life we believe is pleasing to God, and they seem to have a good life. It seems that things go well for them. We see someone else who seems to have a good life, and they also have deep faith and live a life we think is pleasing to God. Maybe we see several examples like that.
And so, at first glance, without really thinking about it, we take those examples as proof that God does indeed reward those who please Him by giving them good lives.
But if we meditate on it; that is, if we think about it seriously and logically and use our power of reason, we might come to a different conclusion.
So let's think logically.
Think about tossing a coin. A coin has two sides, heads or tails. If you toss it, it has an equal chance of landing on either one. If you toss it 10 times, it's reasonable to expect to get five heads and five tails. After all, the chance is 50/50, and if you toss it 10 times, you should get 5 heads and 5 tails.
But if you toss a coin 10 times, you might not get exactly 5 heads and 5 tails. You might get 4 heads and 6 tails. Or you might get 7 tails and 3 heads. You can try it and see. I tried it once and got 7 heads and 3 tails. I tried it again and got 4 heads and 6 tails.
If you got a large number of people together and had them each toss a coin 10 times, some people would get 5 heads and 5 tails, some would get 4 heads and 6 tails or 6 heads and 4 tails, some would get 7 heads and 3 tails or 3 heads and 7 tails. But a few people would get something like 9 heads and 1 tail or 1 head and 9 tails. And, it's possible that some would get either all heads or all tails.
Would that mean that the people who got 9 heads or 10 heads had a coin that was weighted so it would land on heads? Would it mean that they knew how to control the coin so they could determine how it landed?
Not necessarily, because in mathematics there is something called variance. Variance tells you that even though there is a 50/50 chance of getting heads or tails, if you toss it 10 times, you might get something different. That 50/50 chance is only good for a huge number of tosses. Any single set of 10 tosses may or may not end up with an even number of heads and tails.
So let's think logically and take that principle and apply it to examples of people who have deep faith in God and lead a life pleasing to God and have good lives. Do those examples prove the statement that God gives a good life to those who please Him? No, it doesn’t. Why not? Because of the concept of variance, the concept we found when we talked about the coin toss.
You cannot use a selected set of examples to prove that God rewards those who please Him. For every example you point to that seems to validate that belief, I could point to another example that refutes it. There are plenty of people who have deep faith in God and life lives pleasing to God but who don't have good lives. And, I have also known people who had no faith in God and who didn't live lives pleasing to God but who had good lives.
Simply thinking logically about some of these things we're told we should believe reveals they are not true. But what do people who promote those beliefs say when confronted with that? They tell us we can be led astray if we try to use logical thinking about Christian beliefs—the old original sin argument.
I have had experience dealing with people who have lost their Christian faith, people who at one time were committed Christians but have withdrawn from Christianity. I think one of the main reasons people lose their faith is that they have heard things all their lives they are told they are supposed to believe, but as they live their lives and think on the things they've seen in their lives, those beliefs don't turn out to be true.
I’ve known people who have really soured on Christianity, and soured on God, because the beliefs they were told they should believe turned out not to be true. People who, at middle age, got some disease and spent years and years disabled, barely able to do anything, people who worked hard and were loyal employees but who never made much money and never got ahead. And they had tried to live good lives, tried to live lives that were pleasing to God. And then they looked around them and saw people 20 years older than they were still healthy and active, people who had not worked as hard as they did but who had big houses and lots of money. What happened?
The thing is, many of these people had been so conditioned to accept what they were told and not question it, they had been conditioned to believe that questioning it was evil, that even when presented with life experiences that told them the beliefs they had been told to not question were not true, they still could not question them. It was actually easier for them to get mad at God and turn their backs on God than it was to question the beliefs they were told were correct, and that’s what, a lot of times, ended up happening. I really feel sorry for people like that.
Other people, thankfully, can question, and from the experiences they have had in life, they can no longer believe some of the things they have been told they must believe, and so they start thinking.
If you look at the Bible, you see over and over again that peoples' beliefs are not formed from what they're told they must believe. The Bible is full of people whose beliefs were formed from their experiences. They had experiences, they applied logical thinking to them, and that's where their beliefs came from.
A good example is the Hebrews in the Old Testament. Their beliefs came from thinking about their experience of God leading them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Their beliefs came from thinking about their experiences.
There are examples in the New Testament, too. Think of the apostle Paul. His beliefs completely changed from the experience he had on the road to Damascus. The book of Acts tells us that many people who became Christians became Christians because of the signs and wonders they saw the apostles perform. They became Christians because of what they saw and experienced, not because of what they were told.
Christian meditation, I believe, is using logical thinking about Christianity, dissecting things and coming to conclusions. That’s why I believe Christian meditation is the way to really develop faith. I know defining Christian meditation that way might be a little anticlimactic for some. I guess it might seem more attractive if it were sitting on the floor with your legs crossed humming or in some other way being “at one with the universe.”
But when I look out in Christianity, probably the biggest problem I see is that people don’t think. They don’t think because they’re afraid to; they’ve been conditioned not to.
Don't be afraid to think about Christianity. Don't be afraid to use logical thinking and come to conclusions. I don't think God would have created us with minds that have the ability to reason and then shut us off completely from any ability to know about Him by using those minds. I think God gave us those minds and intends for us to use them. I do not think God intends for us to just blindly accept what other people tell us. I believe God wants us to use our own minds and our own power of reason.
And so Christian meditation really boils down to one thing—think. Use logical thinking.