It is a problem that humanity knows only very few facts about God for sure. Some things from natural theology, like that there must be a God. But even if we accept historical knowledge about Christianity as reliable enough to accept it as facts, there are not so many facts. Because one needs to keep away from non-sober, speculative interpretations of the Bible that are employed in most sermons; see also my post on that: “Get sober, Christian fellows“.

This situation is far away from both knowing something factually in detail (as in natural science) and from knowing somebody personally in detail (as in relationships). Not quite satisfying, huh?

Yesterday I met a guy from church who suffered a stroke in his thirties. More precisely, two strokes. He has no problems of this remaining, none at all. This is strange, because it is  unlikely, though not impossible. So this could be a “live miracle”.

It was hard to believe that this guy had suffered stroke at all, him standing before me and joking and talking and walking as he ever did. And here is the lesson from it: miracles are not necessarily visible. The absence of lasting injury can also be a miracle. And also, miracles are not necessarily emotionally accessible; as in this case, where emotions are unchanges from meeting him the last time, as the situation is seemingly unchanged. Emotions react to situational / senseable changes, but in “invisible” miracles, there are no such changes.

Why is there no such thing as a Nobel Prize of Theology? It would be granted for major advancements in theology … .

The most prominent reason is probably that we have no well-accepted epistemology how to arrive at new knowledge in theology. People have different hypotheses (= different religions), claiming them to be true due to some revelation. But what we need is a way to test them against reality. Otherwise, theology would be about opinions only, and the war of opinions. Like flame wars in Internet forums, but nothing well-founded.

While it seems relatively simple to test, say, Hinduism and Paganism against our (Western) concept of reality (multiple millions of gods are prohibited by Occam’s razor) … how to test Christianity and Islam against reality?

Probably, history (as historical science) would help. But as with any non-empiric science, preconceptions are a great danger here. The historical-critical method of theology is full of them, and so are the interpretations of history and the Bible by believers. We would need a “sober”, scientific interpretation of history that excludes the influence of preconceptions by some sort of method …

In Third Way style, the way to approach Christianity would be this: accept the Gospel as a trustable message based in traceable history; but do not interpret reality based on this message except where there is no unvcertainty how to interpret reality; there are really few cases where there is no uncertainty, and among them those where God’s contemporary activity has been tracked by scientific and / or good journalistic methods, so that trustable reports are the result. Which is the focus of my Second Acts project.

For this, it is necessary to develop a interviewing and text analysis system for detecting “non-sober religious activities” like scams, self-deceit and mental illness. Even good parts of sermons belong to this non-sober interpreting of what’s happening in the world. And even good parts of Christian activism (like peace activism in the leftist scene) belongs here, because it has no chance to have a lasting, meaningful effect except by a miracle (which does not happen either). This kind of stuff is far too numerous among Christians, and has to be filtered out to get trustable reports. For example, this non-sober text shows what has to be filtered out: “Needing help in covered up murder of one of Jesus’ musician freaks–in California“. And, this kind of stuff discredits Christianity in the eyes of non-Christians.

The key is the insight that most of the “Christian culture” and “Christian lifestyle” today cannot be derived with good certainty from the Bible, and therefore is a non-sober religious interpretation of the Bible where it is claimed as biblical. It is simply not justified. Even the Christian notions of the personal “Bible time” and personal “community with God in prayer” seem to belong to this, as this cannot be found in the New Testament. (But I need to check again.)

What also has to be filtered out by these interviewing and analysis techniques is the “human component”: it is apparent that human motivation, human enthisiasm and the like makes up for a good part of what is necessary for Christian organizations to be operational. Whenever something like large meetings arises (for instance the “24-7 Euro Gathering”) it is a hint that some human motivation is at work, desiring greatness, magnificence, significance. There will be many other hints like that.

During the last week I learned two important things. First, real desperation is one of the worst imaginable conditions. (To the extent that I speculate: being stuck in desperation forever could be said to be “in hell”.) Second: thinkers are more prone to fall into desperation, but there are learnable mental management techniques to guard them.

The problem that thinkers face is this. As thinkers, they are inclined to solve unsolved questions, and most are also inclined to constantly think about their own lives (what to do next, how to lead a meaningful life, how to make the best decisions, …). Now a thinker might come into a desperate life situation (which could be defined as a calamitous situation that has no way to end except by living through it for its full normal duration). Such a situation poses a question that cannot be solved, namely, how to end it more quickly. Which means that the thinker person will think about it without finding a solution, and keep thinking about it. The other reason to think about it is the thinker’s habit to think about his or her own life; again finding no constructive quicker way out, keeping thinking on it.

Now the constant thinking about a desperate life situation causes despair. Which seems to be a psychological mechanism: keep thinking some thoughts for long enough, and they will become a “self-reinforcing” set of thoughts. After they did, you cannot simply stop thinking them (because you won’t get the idea to do): these thoughts think themselves on and on, as one thought triggers another (and more than one) of the same style. External events (like a phone call from a friend, a day of intensive work, some hours of sports) do normally break such self-reinforcing thought cycles, but thinkers often have less of such events, and those that are present might be too weak to break the cycle, as intensive and long thinking, and the time they already exist, created very forceful thought cycles. If the strength of these thought cycles is above some threshold so that the individual cannot help itself out of them, this is called “depression”. Sorry about this lay experience-based psychology … I have no better words or theory for that currently.

Now thinkers normally assume that their desperate emotions (in its extreme, depression) are simply a result of the desperate situation they are in, and see no reason to stop thinking about that situation. They might even intensify that, to finally find the solution and make their way out. However: their too much thinking about their desperate situation is what causes their desperate emotions. That is the central insight in this blog post.

Once a thinker did grasp that insight, several pragmatic rules and tips for thinking follow from that with ease:

  • Think about the next step to go, and focus on it. Even if you have 100 steps to go until your desperate situation is finished, the next step only is what can motivate, because it is reasonably small.
  • Place a nice activity after the next step, to support its motivating power.
  • Also do focus on the even smaller detail steps in your work: to get these done does also motivate, and motivation is good for mental well-being. This is even true if these detail steps are part of your desperate situation, in that they do not have the intended good effects (like earning you money or what else you need). Getting a step finished is a motivating thing in itself, even if taht step has very little meaning in a broader context; that seems to be a mechanism of psychology which can be leveraged here.
  • Get “consumed” by the work you must do, for some hours, by keeping the mental focus on the work itself, not on the “meta layer” that tells you why this work is nonsense and having to do it means your life is deperate. Because, concentration on an activity keeps you from thinking these desperate meta-level thoughts, and not thinking desperate thoughts is key to the mental management of desperation.
  • You are “safely allowed” to think about your desperate life situation, but only for some moments to draw some logical conclusions; do not think about this stuff so long that a self-reinforcing thought cycle is started. The first warning sign seems to be: if these thought start to affect your emotions, stop thinking them for the time being.
  • You can experiment with various means of distraction to keep you from starting to think unhealthy stuff again. This can include listening to music while working, doing sports, doing activities that consume all the concentration, socializing with people, etc..
  • Remember, desperation is a mental state, not a physical.

So one has to manage ones own thought life to stay mentally healthy. Which is an observation with various implications:

  • There is a limits to rationality, in the amount of rational thinking that a human being can bear. Rational thinking does not happen in free space, but in the “human ecosystem”; and because of psychological mechanisms, rational thinking does affect emotions, as does every kind of thinking. Which means that rational thinking has non-rational side effects, and to prevent unhealthy side effects, there is a pragmatic preemptive limit to rational thinking. There is also a factual limit: if you allow your rational thinking to drive you to deepest despair, you deprived yourself of the ability of rational thinking. Because despair is a precondition that taints and prohibits truly rational thinking.
  • Many people need to start thinking, not stop it. Thinkers are a small minority. Most people are not endangered by depression due to thinking too much about their life situation. They are more shallow-minded people, and unconsciously engage in many activities that keep them away from thinking about their life situation: they engage in short-term “fun” activities like socializing with people, making flat and bromidic jokes, taking drugs etc.. All of which also influences the relationship between desperate facts and emotions as advised here, but before these people even started to realize the desperate facts. They might have nothing more than a vague idea of it. Those people rather need to start thinking, because there are many non-desperate situations about which something can and must be done, and this they miss at the same time. They must start to think about not knowing the meaning of their life (including, not knowing where they do come from: their Creator); they must start to think about the lack of deep, authentic community with people in their life, their excessive loneliness.
  • Can mental management techniques be compared to substance abuse? I would argue, no. It is true that both influence the way how facts affect emotions, detaching emotions from facts in some way. Substance abuse is frowned because of its unhealthy short-term and long-term side effects; in spite of that, some of the same substances are used for medical purposes like palliative medicine. In analogy, I would compare mental management techniques to the carefully considered use of medicine. While the same techniques can also be used to totally numb the desire to think rationally about ones own life, as is the case with distraction techniques in people who need to start thinking yet (see above). Just as palliative analgesic like morphine relieve of unnecessary bodily pain, the “medical” use of mental management relieves of unnecessary mental pain. And just as a certain amount of pain is needed to guard the body against injuries, a certain amount of mental pain is needed to move out of calamitous and meaningless life situations. Do not use mental management techniques to kill that “good mental pain”; just to prohibit unhealthy self-reinforcing thought cycles. Also, be always aware that you are on some kind of “mental medication”; as only that awareness makes it possible to stay emotionally authentic.
  • Why is mental management not taught anywhere? This should be a field of deeper research, and then a part of general education. There is physical education in school, which is about learning how to deal with ones own body. Why is there not mental education?
  • The narrow Christian viewpoint towards such depressive thinking should be rethought. That viewpoint is mostly some variation of: bad emotions are a result of “egoistic, self-centered” (and hence sinful) thinking and that the solution would be to “give it to Jesus”, to “focus ones thoughts on Jesus” and the like. This does indeed help on many occasions (as people stop extensive thinking about a personal desperate situation), but both the diagnosis and the therapy seem to be screwed up. The diagnosis is wrong because it is the wrong explanation: this problem is not about “sinful” behavior, but about doing a right thing in unhealthy amounts. The therapy is wrong because it does not relate to the real problem, which is “how to deal with desperate situations”. While it is always a good idea to pray about a situation, and also pray for help, there seems to be no general promise of relief of the calamitous facts. And the content of the “Jesus-focused thoughts” does not help here either: it’s about the hope of resurrection and a happy afterlife, but that is a quite abstract, long-term hope that does not relate to the struggles with daily calamities. So, focusing ones thoughts on Jesus is just another method of distraction here (and is effective as such, but just as effective as other methods). There seems to be no factual reason for criminalizing mental despair as “sin” in Christianity. To the contrary, there is some advice given by Paul to slaves in NT times, which comes close to this “don’t think abut it much, don’t let it bother you” solution we presented here: “Were you a slave when you were called? Do not let that bother [lit.: be of interest to; annotation] you. Of course, if you have a chance to become free, take advantage of the opportunity. For the slave who has been called in the Lord is the Lord’s free person. In the same way, the free person who has been called is Christ’s slave.” (1 Cor 7:21-22 ISV).

Now this is quite a personal post, but just as a side effect; I hope it helps some thinkers who struggle with desperation while thinking abut desperate situations.

Each individual person can do nothing better than to find and use the best epistempology (a method for determining truth) for which he or she has the resources to use it. As this will return the best possible results, while even better but utopic epistemologies return no results at all.

Therefore, people in ancient cultures (before using exact science was possible in societies, because of economic restrictions) could do nothing better than to employ historic documents, traditions and faithful witnesses to determine the truth about God. The same applies to developing countries today.

Also today, as and as long as an individual has no practical access to using scientific methodology when it comes to questions about God, the best thing is to apply the ancient’s epistemology. It’s not as good, but at least can be maintained by an individual person.

Which means: as long as I cannot execute my Second Acts project (to quasi-empirically collect facts about God’s contemporary activity), I should (and also I am epistemically allowed to) believe in Jesus Christ because of history, traditions and own (not exactly recorded) experiences alone.

Many people like to be free and independent. Some even to the degree that they prefer self-employment over the security of employment, and friendships over the reliability of long-term pair relationship. Of course there’s always the danger of loneliness, but also always the benefit of flexible, agile, simple living. You gotta agree with only yourself if you want to cancel your job, sell your car, move abroad, travel for years or anything like that.

With one exception. If you’re Christian, you entered a relationship to Jesus. You’re no longer totally free and independent. Instead you will now want to act in a way that you know is compatible with Jesus’ values and ideas, or ask Jesus if some decision is o.k., or what he proposes.

Even “worse”, this kind of dependence will not cease for all eternity. But as every kind of relationship, this can also be a highly valuable experience that you’ll never want to miss again.