The Mind is Like a Mirror Bright
In which I clarify and expand some notions that I unintentionally left hanging last time.
My thesis there is that sin–or human imperfection, if you prefer more neutral terminology–is much like addiction. An addict, becoming progressively more deeply addicted, becomes less in possession of true freedom of action. Unlike a first-time user, who freely uses nicotine or heroin or whatever, the addict uses it from physiological and psychological need. Even with the realization that what he’s doing is bad for himself and that it may compel him to do other negative things–lying, cheating, stealing, even murder–in order to get the next fix, he is powerless to stop. His freedom of will is mitigated, overlaid, suppressed, all because of the addiction. This is why interventions are often necessary to get an addict on the way to healing. Unable to take the first step himself, he needs a prod from others. He may even need to be forcibly institutionalized.
By analogy, I said sin is like an addiction. We suffer from it as a result of genes, upbringing, society, and so on, and are in its grip from the start (what we could call “Original Sin”). Thus, our freedom is compromised by our sinful tendencies, and we are unable, by ourselves, to take the first steps to overcoming sin. In traditional theology, prevenient grace is God’s “intervention”–the prod he gives us that makes us able to begin the process of spiritual rehab (I should point out that this works in any religious framework. God can, and in my view does, give prevenient grace to non-Christians as much as to Christians. The basic concept here could be re-framed in terms of other religions, too, but in this context I’m using the Christian perspective). Extending this further, I argued that this is not a breach of our free will. My contention was that just as an addict’s free will is compromised by his addiction, ours is compromised by sin. I think a strong Scriptural and theological case can be made for this.
Thus, there is a person’s surface, or “false” will–the will that is wounded and compromised by sin. Just as the addict “wants” drugs, we think we “want” all kinds of bad things. Below the false will is the true will–what we’d really want if cleansed of sickness. Just as an addict, after drying out, realizes he doesn’t really want more drugs, the sinner, after cleansing, realizes he never really wanted to sin. Of course, this rests on my unexamined assumption–that is, that there actually is a “true” will, and that this true will is on the side of the angels–that it really, beneath it all, wants the good and wants to escape addictions, of drugs or of sin. But is this assumption true?
Another way to put this is to ask whether it really is true that even the worst person we can imagine is deep down “really” good; or if, in contrast, some people really are as bad on the inside as they are on the outside. How do I know that a cured addict wouldn’t still want to be an addict? How do I know that deep down an evil person doesn’t want to be evil? Very good questions, indeed. Since I can’t read minds, I have no direct way of answering this–nor does anyone else. However, we can look at some basic principles.
In the Christian framework, we are all said to be created “in the image and likeness of God”. This obviously does not mean our physical appearance, since God has no body. Rather, we are in God’s image in that we have intelligence, a mind, a personality; and in that we are basically good. That goodness is wounded and overlaid by Original Sin and personal sin; but it never is totally eliminated. Beyond that, traditional theology holds that we were made by God to have a natural love for and attraction to Him. In the words of the Baltimore Catechism, “God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.” In short, not only are we basically good, we have a natural tendency to seek the Good, the True, and the Beautiful; that is, to seek that perfection which is God.
A similar view exists in Buddhist thought. In Mahayana Buddhism not only every human but every being is said to possess Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is the pure, eternal seed of enlightenment present in all beings beneath all the layers of illusion, delusion, and negativity. The image often used is that of a mirror. A mirror may be smudged, covered with dust, or hidden beneath layers of dirt and grime. It’s still a mirror, though, and by cleansing it one can see its intrinsic reflective nature that was always there, though obscured. Likewise, the process of spiritual growth and ultimate enlightenment is not considered as adding to a person something he lacks. Rather, everyone already has the pure, mirror-like Buddha-nature, and all one has to do is to cleanse all the layers of delusion and bad karma that obscure it. This may be a long and arduous task, but it is an uncovering of one’s true nature, not an alteration of it.
I’m aware that not all religions would share this perspective. Some forms of Gnosticism, for example, posit three categories of humans: the pneumatic (spiritual), who have a spark of the Divine Light and will definitely be saved; the psychic (not those with ESP–in this context it means “having a soul”), who may be saved or not, depending on their actions; and the hylic (material), who lack a divine spark (in effect, they have no soul) and thus merely appear to be human when they are actually p-zombies who will cease to exist utterly at death. Likewise, in Buddhism, the concept of Buddha-nature is not found in all schools. Thus, there is no way I can prove that all humans have a spark, however small, of good (image of God/Buddha-nature); nor can the converse be proved. We are here at the level of axioms: concepts that can’t be proved but are either accepted or rejected. Two points in a plane determine a line. That is perfectly obvious and perfectly impossible to prove. You either see it or you don’t. This is where we’re at here: Either it seems intuitively obvious that all humans do have a spark of the Divine, are basically good no matter how much evil covers that good; or it seems as if some lack that goodness. You pays your money and takes your chances.
As is probably obvious, I choose the former position: that humans are, at their root, good, in the image of God, having Buddha nature. Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Pol Pot–take your pick of evil bastards. Even they never completely obliterated the spark of good. Even they were mirrors, however covered with filth and iniquity those mirrors might have been. As I said, I’m aware that I can’t prove this assertion; however, the opposite cannot be proved, either. It’s a matter of the axioms one chooses, and I choose this one.
Given this, one could argue that it is unjust for any person to suffer hell eternally, since that means that the spark of goodness, however small, is forever sequestered from the source of all goodness, God Himself. I think that’s valid, but that’s not where I want to go with this. I want something subtler, which I took a stab at in the last post but didn’t express as well as I could have.
The assertion of those who uphold the TVOH is that the damned desires not to be in God’s presence. He freely, through his actions, has chosen of his own free will and uncoerced choice, to separate himself from God forever. Now whether such a choice is something that humans are even able to make is debatable. If this is true for Christians, it’s all the more true of those who don’t have a concept of God, salvation, and damnation. One whole series here is dedicated to exploring whether such choices can even be made to begin with. We know little enough about what will happen tomorrow, let alone being able to do a risk-benefit analysis regarding a hell or heaven that we don’t even see and that are said to be eternal. For the purposes of discussion here, though, we’ll assume that a person can, indeed, make such a choice. That is, one can choose to condemn themselves and thus separate themselves from God eternally. What I’m interested in is where that choice comes from.
If that choice comes from the damned persons truest, deepest self; if that choice is a true and unalterable expression of that person’s mind; if that is really, truly what the damned person wants eternally; then it would indeed seem that God Himself is unable to do anything about it. To do so would involve forcing the person’s free will; which would involve changing who that person is. To use an analogy, one might forcibly drag an unwilling guest to a party, but one can’t make him enjoy being there. God could put a damned soul in the middle of Heaven (metaphorically speaking), but that person, being fixed in rebellion against God, would nevertheless be in Hell. God has the power to change the person’s outlook and attitude by essentially “overwriting” his mind. However, that would be destroying who the person is, creating a new personality, and that’s not what God wants. In the words of the old song, He wants us “the right way”, not as automatons. Thus, God will not force a person’s interior free will even to save them. As far as this goes, I’d agree.
But that begs the question of what the “person’s interior free will” actually is. After all, if I take a loaded gun away from a very young child who is playing with it, he may be very upset and frustrated since he doesn’t understand the danger. His will is based upon an incomplete understanding. If I take drugs away from an addict, he may take strong objection to my actions. Even though he is capable of understanding why I’m doing it, he is in the grip of the addiction and will fight against removal of drugs despite his knowledge that getting off them is the right thing to do. His will is clouded and compromised by the drugs. A similar analysis could be given for the treatment of a mentally ill person. Maybe he hallucinates a horrible danger and thinks that my attempts to help him are going to unleash horrible things. He doesn’t object to being helped; it’s just that his perception is warped by madness.
I submit that most people would agree that in none of these cases is the appropriate action (getting the gun away from the child and getting help for the addict or the madman) a matter of breaching that person’s free will. Moreover, the appropriate treatment (in the last two cases), while it will definitely affect the person’s mind and personality, is not destroying or overriding that personality, but healing it. Thus, by analogy: Given that there is, as I postulate, a core of goodness, of true self and true will beneath the layers of false self and false will, I think it plausible that even the most seemingly evil people, the firmest rejectors of God, most thoroughly damned, nevertheless, in the depths of their true will, do not desire separation from God, the fount of goodness. To assert otherwise implies that somehow that image of God within them, which seeks God, can somehow be completely destroyed; and that a mere creature can do so seems very much unlikely to me.
Thus, I suggest that what we call Hell is the treatment program for these recalcitrant souls. I would distinguish it from Purgatory in this respect: Purgatory, if you will, is voluntary treatment, whereas Hell is involuntary. Some addicts and mentally ill persons still have enough understanding of their plight and strength of will left that they can check themselves into treatment. So with those who die in what is traditionally called a “state of grace“. They have realized their sins and imperfections and, however feebly, repented of them and chosen for God before they die. They have, in effect, chosen the treatment–Purgatory–that will make them fit for heaven. Traditional theology says that despite the sufferings in Purgatory, the souls there are joyful, because they know they are suffering in order to attain Paradise. This would not be much different from the case of an addict in treatment who, depsite the hardships, realizes that he’ll be in a much better state at the end.
Some addicts and mentally ill, though, must be forcibly institutionalized, however. The addiction is too strong or the mental illness too severe for the persons so affected to take that step by themselves. They may even fight attempts to help them, since they can’t understand the real situation. Hell, then, is what happens to those who have not chosen for God at the end; whose false selves and false wills are so strong and deep that the true self and true will cannot make themselves heard. God does not give up on them, though. He gives them the treatment they need to overcome their illness. This might take a “long ” time (bearing in mind that in the afterlife “time” no longer has the same meaning it has here). It might be unpleasant, very unpleasant; hellish, in fact. Treatment for the unwilling addict or severely mentally ill, no matter how beneficent, will appear horrendous to the person at the time. Afterwards, though, they will be grateful for the treatment and glad to be back to normal. The damned might not like the program at first. Eventually, though, as God patiently works through the slow process of peeling away the layers of the false self, they will be progressively healed. In the end, they will join those in Heaven, and wonder, perhaps, why they made themselves have to undergo the treatment, why they didn’t choose rightly to begin with.
Now of course in this flawed world all of these well-intended interventions can arouse suspicion. No one wants a child to have a gun, but discipline more generally can be tyrannical and abusive. We’ve all seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or the like, and are aware of how treatment programs for addiction and mental illness can be horrifically abusive. Moreover, psychotherapy has been appallingly abused over history; for just two examples, recall the practice in the old Communist bloc of using institutionalization against dissidents, and our own government’s experiments in weaponizing mind control. All too often treatment has not polished the mirror, but obscured it further, if not breaking it. There are also, in this world, issues of distinguishing illness from mere eccentricity, and determination of the appropriateness of involuntary treatment, this, too, often having been abused.
My point is that I’m not suggesting that God is some kind of evil, Nazi-esque tyrant out to break the wills of the damned. I certainly don’t believe in such a God. Rather, being perfectly good and having a desire that all be saved, He can be the perfect therapist who accomplishes the goal with no abuse of the patient. With God there is no unjust committing of patients to an asylum, no abusive treatment, no nefarious ulterior goals. The treatment program might, as I said, be unpleasant at first to the recalcitrant–that’s why we call it Hell–but in the end it will be recognized even by them as the good that it is. Will they be different people? Yes, in the sense that a dried-out junkie or a madman returned to sanity are different; but they will not be new selves, but true selves. The Hitler or Bin Laden that emerges will not be a spiritual lobotomite or an automaton-like happy drone, but the person that each should have been in the first place. Thus, even if one wants to argue that the damned have definitively chosen to reject God at the point of their death, I think it can be argued even then that they are not bereft of hope.
As glowing as this vision is, I think there are still a few loose ends to be tied up. We certainly have to find out what Connor MacLeod will do with his broccoli fudge sundae! More in coming posts.
Posted on 10/04/2014, in Christianity, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged addiction, Christianity, heaven, Hell, mind, philosophy, psychotherapy, religion, theodicy, theology, Zen. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.