I Corinthians

Probably the third surviving text from the unfolding life of the early Christian communities, I Corinthians is a much longer, and therefore richer, source of St Paul’s thought, then the two earlier epistles. 

Unity & Love

The Christian community in Corinth is suffering from divisions. It’s clearly very mixed in its membership (1:26-28). Richer members are not waiting to share food with the less well-off ones at the Lord’s Supper (11:21-22). Members appeal to different Christian leaders as the source of their authority (3:1-9) and Paul seems to have written this letter to settle some disputed issues indicated in a letter received from Corinth; he also intends to visit in person at some later date.

Famously, chapter 13 is Paul’s great text in praise of love – always patient, always kind and bearing no record of wrongs. In a letter elsewhere confrontational, here he challenges the Christians of Corinth to rise to the heights of love. He does this after reminding them that the church is one body, and the “weaker members” of a body deserve “greater care” (12:14-26).

The Holy Spirit

The Spirit (or “breath”) of God features prominently in this letter.  We have already seen that both in Thessalonica and Galatia, St Paul’s audience experienced some sort of dramatic manifestation of the God’s spirit, and we are told this also happened in Corinth (2:4). Verses 8-16 of the same chapter set out Paul’s understanding of what it is to be led by God’s spirit, which comprehends the depth of God, and equips believers with the “mind of Christ”. Each Christian believer is therefore a temple of God’s Spirit (3:16-17).

Because the Corinthian Christians have been touched by God’s spirit, they are now manifesting charismatic gifts. But again, the lack of love in the community causes these to be exercised in an inconsiderate way, and Paul gives directions on the right use of spiritual gifts in the worshipping community (12 & 14). There is no reason to think that the list of nine gifts mentioned by Paul is exhaustive; other gifts may be bestowed by the Holy Spirit at God’s pleasure.

Jesus Christ

“We proclaim Christ crucified.” Paul’s message, at its heart, is about a man who was executed on a Cross (1:23). Near the end of the letter (15:1-11) he sets out the Gospel which he himself “received” (he doesn’t say whether in a heavenly vision or handed on from the apostles who were witnesses), stressing that it is of “first importance” that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, rose and appeared to many of his followers.

Earlier in the letter, Paul also passes on what he has received about the Lord’s Supper (11:23-26) – in the breaking of bread and the cup of the new covenant, believers “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”.

Immediately following (11:27-32), Paul warns of the consequences of unworthy participation in this ritual meal. Those who do not “discern the body” bring judgment upon themselves; Paul says this is why some have become weak or even died! Now “discerning the body” here seems to point less to an understanding of the Real Presence and more towards the Christian community as Christ’s body. It comes soon after words about Christ as the “head of humanity” and before the image of church as one body of differently-gifted members (12:27).

It is clear that at this early time in the life of the church, the Lord’s Supper is being kept in the way Jesus celebrated it originally – in the context of a meal, at which bread and wine would then be blessed and shared. It is unlikely the host family would provide all the food; this letter has the clear sense that what was meant to be a “bring and share” meal has descended into a “bring your own”. (How many of us have gone to a church “bring and share” bringing our own favourite food, and favoured that out of all the variety on display to us, even when we have waited our turn to fill our plate?)

Paul seems to believe that selfish behaviour at the Lord’s supper attracts God’s direct punishment (11:31-32), but this is for our own good. Is this telling us Paul’s personal opinion, or something he has learned through a revelation? (Most of the New Testament points to judgment as being something awaiting at the end of our lives rather than a current intervention from God.)

Sexual Morality

“The body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body” – St Paul understands that we are called into relationship with Christ, and this has consequences for all our other relationships. I Corinthians is marked by much thinking about the “body” – in sexual relations, in how the dead shall be raised, and in the church as “body of Christ”.

Should the unmarried or widowed marry? Ideally no (7:8 & 27), because this will leave them free to concentrate on their relationship to Christ (7:32-38), but it is no sin if they do; but they should marry a believer (7:39). This letter reflects an “equality” in Christian marriage where each spouse has rights over the other’s body (7:1-7).

An unbelieving spouse is connected to Christ through their marriage to a believer – and that’s a good thing (7:14). But a sinful sexual relationship connects a “prostitute” to the body of Christ, and that’s a bad thing (6:12-20). Divorce is to be avoided; but if an unbeliever abandons a believer, then the believer is free to marry again as long as the new spouse supports their faith (the Pauline Privilege). The community were expected to know that it was utterly forbidden for a man to live with his stepmother (5:1-2).

In 6:9, Paul gives an explicit list of behaviour which forfeits heaven – not just the unspecific porneia but also adultery and the active and passive roles in a homosexual act.

Meat & Idols

Can we eat meat sacrificed to idols? This is the key question in chapter 8, but is returned to in chapter 10. Paul’s main response (8:3-13) is that Christians are free to eat meat which has previously been involved in pagan temple sacrifices, but this should not be done when it gives offense to other members of the Christian community. He returns to the theme (10:14-11:1) but there seems to be having conflicting thoughts. He muses that once you become “one body” with Christ, how can you “drink the cup of demons”? Yet he also affirms that you may “eat whatever is sold in the marketplace”. So if you know that no-one in your house is going to be scandalised by your purchases, Paul is saying, “carry on, if you’re happy to eat something that connects you to demons”. (A strong minded Christian householder might retort that by giving thanks over the food, the connection has been broken.)

Slavery & Torah

Paul lives in an age where slavery is an everyday institution. It’s not clear whether he approves of slavery in general; it is clear that he doesn’t expect it to be overturned, so guidance is needed for Christian slaves and Christian masters. He does affirm that one’s status as slave or free is irrelevant for one’s standing in the Christian commununity (7:21-24) – and leverages the institution to model our relationship with Jesus: Paul would have everyone be a “slave to Christ” (while enjoying their “freedom in Christ”!)

There may be a parallel between Paul’s opinion of slavery and that of the Jewish Law. Paul is pragmatic. He follows the Jewish Law when it serves his mission purposes (9:20); he sets aside his rights when he needs to. He knows that being Jewish does not bring automatic security; the Jews spent 40 years in the wilderness. He believes strongly that a Christian man’s circumcision status is irrelevant (7:17-20). Paul is wrestling with a question which will confront any serious Christian thinker: Why did God reveal the Jewish Law (Torah) to Moses, only for it to cease to apply to believers following the Resurrection of Christ? We have already seen this is a major theme in Galatians, and we shall return to it  when we consider Romans.

The Second Coming

Picking up a theme prominent in I Thessalonians but not Galatians, Paul expects a “Day of the Lord” to come when our work will be tested (3:12-15). As in that first letter, he refuses to enter into details about what form our risen bodies will take (15:35-54). Careful study of chapter 15 is needed to see where Paul speaks of the reward of believers vs. a univeral raising of all who have died. Paul’s Gospel is that Jesus rose from the dead, and did so for our sins. Through this good news the Corinthians are “being saved”, as long as they hold firm to it (15:2). This form of words is significant for dealing with evangelicals and questions of whether we are “already saved” or “working out our salvation” and whether salvation can be lost.

Judgement

Paul asks that he not be “judged” by the Corinthians, as that will happen when the Lord returns (4:1-5).

But he does pass “judgment” on the man living with his stepmother, and expresses disappointment that the Corinthian church had not already done so (5:3-5). He also tells the believers not to accept into their midst one who practices porneia or one who is greedy – or a drunkard – an idolater – or a reviler – or a thief (5:9-13).

Further, he does ask trustworthy members of the community to adjudicate disputes between members (6:1-11) – clearly there has been at least one case of fraud inflicted by one member of this church on another.

There is scope here for a deep study of ‘judgment’ and when Christians should practice it, and when they should refrain.

Paul and Women

One final topic remains to be considered: the status of women in the Corithian church and in Paul’s thinking. But this is so contentious I will leave it for a post of its own. Watch this space!

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Galatians

Continuing our series of reviews of Scripture:

St Paul has a problem. The Christian believers in Galatia are beginning to believe they have to follow the Jewish Law, despite his teaching them that they are free in Christ. But this means Paul has to explain why it was neccessary for God to make the Law binding through Moses and then reverse this decision through Jesus Christ.

Galatians 1 emphasises St Paul’s personal calling to be an apostle, and his concern to communicate faithfully what he has received in a direct revelation from Christ. Chapter 2 continues this theme and establishes his authority for saying that followers of Christ need not be bound by Jewish dietary laws. The chapter concludes with a clear statement that no-one can be “reckoned as righteous” (or “justified”) because they obey the Jewish law, but only through “the faith of Jesus”. The same ambiguity exists in the original Greek as in English – the “faith of Jesus” could simply mean His faithfulness (by going through with the Cross) or the faith the “justified” person places in Jesus. Chapter 3 asserts that “all who believe” are children of Abraham but again, this could be applied to “all believers” or could pick out Christ’s unique role as the perfectly faithful one through whom Abraham’s blessing could come to the Gentiles (3:14, 3:16) – all who are baptised into Christ are counted as Abraham’s offspring (3:29).

3:19-26 clearly reflects Paul’s ponderings on why God had given the Jewish Law (Torah) only for it to become redundant upon the death of Christ. He sees it as “added” because humanity sinned, providing a temporary disciplinary code for people to deal with their faults, and in some way required so that Jesus could faithfully fulfil the Law. 3:19-20 contains a confusing reference to the Law coming “by angels through a mediator” – not easy to interpret but perhaps Paul is pointing to a Jewish tradition about how the Law came, and saying the Mediator could not have been separate from God, but the Word of God “was” God?

In Chapter 4, Paul mixes images of Christian believers as “adopted children” and as “heirs”. As adopted children in God’s house, we have “come of age” at the death and resurrection of Christ and share in our Father’s authority within the house – an idea we will also find in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The concept of “heirs” is more difficult because it depends on the execution of a will – but our Father has not died, and our eldest brother has been raised. It is implicit that Jewish people who don’t embrace Christian faith are still “slaves” rather than “heirs” in God’s household. This image is not as damning as it might sound to modern ears: in Roman society, to be a household slave did not always imply poor conditions and backbreaking work, but could indicate some status and rights as part of the family of the paterfamilias of a household.  The image of slavery is subverted in the next chapter, where Christians are called to be “slaves to one another”.

The fifth chapter focuses on sin, understood as works of the flesh: the beginning of a long New Testament tradition of speaking of “flesh”, our bodily humanity, as a source of temptation. The flesh can be responsible for sexual immorality, other acts of intemperance, human conflict and recourse to magic – all who practice such things are said to forfeit the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the final chapter, Paul speaks of the need to bear our own burdens but also to bear one another’s burdens; perhaps we all have to be ready to do the former but should aspire to the latter. We are also to correct one another gently when we fall into sin, and ensure that Christian teachers are provided for within the community.

One other point of note – Paul clearly hints that when God’s Word was preached in Galatia, they experienced some kind of manifestation of the Holy Spirit (3:2, 3:5), reprising a theme in I Thessalonians.

I Thessalonians

Today, I’m beginning a new series of posts, reflecting on Scripture. Marcus J. Borg challenges readers to take a fresh look at the New Testament in his “Evolution of the Word”, approaching it in the order in which its books were composed. He expects to lose potential readers who belong to fundamentalist evangelical churches, where they would be unlikely to embrace the “humanity” of God’s word, in tension with ideas of inerrancy. His own approach is not only historical-critical but leans in a liberal direction, insisting on inclusive language, and on calling the early disciples “Jesus followers” or the “Christ-community” rather than more conventional labels.

Why I am pursuing this on this blog? I think the AspiePriest perspective brings something distinctive to the party. Our starting point is the Catholic teaching that the Gospels offer the “honest truth” about Jesus and that Scripture does not err in teaching things God wishes to communicate about faith and morals. As a charismatic Catholic I am willing to embrace supernatural perspectives: I allow the possibility of divine revelation given to Christ even in his self-imposed humanity, and to the human authors of the sacred texts through the promptings of the Holy Spirit. With that in mind, let us begin.


Around the year AD 50, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy wrote a letter to the Christians in Thessalonica. Following Paul’s vision of a “man of Macedonia” these missionaries had visited first Philippi, then Thessalonica. Later, Paul had gone on to Athens and Corinth but sent Timothy back to visit and report on matters in Thessalonica. Some time after Timothy’s return to Paul, the letter we now know as I Thessalonians was written and despatched.

After the usual greeting formula, the letter immediately affirms (1:5) that when these missionaries had preached in Thessalonica, the Gospel came “not only in word, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and in full conviction.” What exactly happened when the missionaries first preached there? What powerful outpouring of God’s Spirit was manifested? Whatever happened, it immediately sealed a community of convicted believers. The end of the letter (5:19-20) intimates that gifts of prophesy were present, but receiving a mixed reception; the immediately prior admonishment not to “quench the spirit” leans towards this being current rather than Old Testament prophecy.

The missionaries say they did not seek to collect money or offer false flattery, but sought to nurture a community of disciples beginning to follow God’s ways. Paul prays that the Thessalonians grow to “even greater love” for one another (3:12) and reminds them that, to follow Jesus’ teaching, they must resist “lustful passion” (4:5) avoiding fornication (4:3). As usual, the underlying Greek word used is porneia, frustratingly vague in communicating what exactly was being forbidden; but the mention of “not exploiting” other members of the community (4:6) sounds like this message was a corrective to adulterous relationships being considered as a wrongful expression of “love one another”. Closing remarks also affirm the Christian values of patience, returning good for evil, rejoicing, thanksgiving and continuous prayer (5:15-18).

This letter famously contains teaching about the Second Coming – the dead will rise first, and the living will be caught up to meet them in the air (4:16-17). How can Paul know this? If he has been caught up into heaven and granted visions (as he intimates in some of his other letters), he could plausibly have been given teachings about this. This early generation of Christians still expected the imminent return of Christ, and are questioning how some of their number could have died already; Paul minimises this (5:2) and affirms it doesn’t matter whether we are alive or dead when Christ comes (5:10).

42

Recently I went out for a meal with a friend who is also a science graduate, and our conversation turned to deep matters. My friend was pondering our insignificance as creatures on a tiny planet in a single galaxy in a vast cosmos. Did our lives have meaning?

This proved a golden opportunity for me to gain another perspective on the question whose interpretation has always foxed me, the question of whether life is the kind of thing which actually has meaning.

For my friend, a fellow Catholic, if there were no afterlife, there would be no cosmic consequences to our moral actions; then, the only consequences of our human acts would be ephemeral memories which are mostly wiped out when our generation of friends is dead, and totally obliterated once our sun goes nova – if the earth hasn’t already been destroyed by some other cosmic catastrophe.

I looked at things differently. What is the difference between performing an act of kindness, and not doing so? The most precious memories of my life are a handful of times when someone has communicated affection to me powerfully. If those friends had not done the affectionate things they did, I would not have those memories. Each memory is a jewel, and given the choice of having no jewels or a handful of jewels, I am surely better off to have a handful to cherish.

For my friend, these kinds of memories were ‘insignificant’, because once I am dead and gone, they will be in the past. They are not a lasting legacy. Compared to the size and duration of the Universe, they are infinitesimal.

For me, these are peak human-scale experiences in my human-scale life. That matters. I am not comparing them to the Universe at large – only to the alternative of “no such experiences”. Something is infinitely more than nothing, even if the same something is infinitely less than everything! My friend compared himself to the vastness of the Universe. But I myself am vast compared to the millions of millions of bacteria in my body, and the trillions of trillions of atoms of which I am composed. I live at the scale between atoms and galaxies – which is (thank you JBS Haldane!) exactly the right size for a human being!

I love teaching and helping others. If I had not started believing in God, I think I would still have lived a life where the things that made me happy also happened to help other people. Helping others is not ‘insignificant’ to me or the others involved.

I do sometimes wonder what my legacy will be. What will I leave behind when I am gone? There are some niche scientific papers I authored or co-authored. There is this blog, which I hope will continue to be useful to Aspies and their friends. I wonder for how many decades, if not centuries, it will be archived somewhere accessible? Maybe someone will write a better blog which deals with the same matters with greater insight and wit. If so, it would not bother me for you to read that blog instead because what matters to me is that you are blessed with the best insight, not that you must reap from my personal labours. I write in case for some readers, right now, this might be the best currently available.

You can read everything above without Christian faith being relevant. Add faith, and my legacy increases. By my preaching and celebrating the sacraments, I will have affected whether certain souls will spend eternity in heaven rather than Hell. My own moral choices will have eternal consequences on Judgment Day when Christ says ‘well done, good and faithful servant’. These things matter too. But if I didn’t know eternal life was real, I think I would be happy to settle for making other people happy in this life as the best consequences I could obtain.

What if I had grown up differently, seeking pleasure through crime, illicit drugs or some other addiction? Those ill-gotten ‘peak experiences’ might have seemed significant to me, even if they blessed no-one else and even caused distress to my family. I seem to remember Robert Spitzer writing of our growth through seeking our own happiness, through the happiness of others, to doing good because we grasp that some acts are transcendently good.

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is a machine called the ‘Total Perspective Vortex’ which causes a person to see how insignificant their life is compared to the universe at large. Perhaps Douglas Adams was grappling with these same questions. When I bade farewell to my friend at the end of the meal, only then did I discover that we had been dining at Table 42!

The Good Doctor

I’ve been watching a medical drama recently – The Good Doctor stars Dr Shaun Murphy, who is a surgeon on the autistic spectrum. The way the character is written, his autism is more extreme than mine – I readily laugh, recognising (at least some of) the ways Shaun doesn’t realise he should be sensitive to his friends, colleagues and patients.

One episode in particular drew together several themes I’ve written about recently on this blog. The 14th episode of Season 1, entitled She, confronts Dr Murphy with a teenager who is biologically male but identifies as female. For most of the episode, Shaun finds this hard to process. TFor Shaun, this person is objectively a male, so he must call the person “him”. The teenager, however, argues that she is “meant to be a girl”. Shaun responds that there is no “meant to be”, only what is.

I think the scriptwriters have done a good job of capturing the sense of what it is not to understand the concept of meaning, which I’ve written about previously. It also highlights the dangers of philosophising about human identity by scholars who might themselves be autistic and not intuit what it is to have a sense of meaning or purpose. On the other hand, we can ask legitimate questions about why we have this sense. I’m beginning to realise that most human beings are hard-wired, when they watch a film or read a book, to ask: “What real-world principle is this about?” I can ask this question, but it’s hard work and doesn’t come naturally. It’s only just dawning on me that most storytellers are not only trying to tell a story but also make a point.

 

Three Minute Therapy

Spoiler Warning – if you haven’t seen Molly’s Game, look away now.

Earlier this month I went to see the film, Molly’s Game, tracing the rise and fall of Molly Bloom. The only daughter among three siblings in a highly competitive family, an injury put paid to her hopes of being an Olympic skier. A gap year job unexpectedly found her assisting with, and then running, high-stakes poker games for the great and the good of Los Angeles. With nothing but her wits to assist her, Molly thrived for a time in this environment, but then was drawn into a culture of drug use and overwork and crashed out, accompanied by threats from the mob.

At her lowest point, her Dad catches up with her in New York. He’s a professional psychologist, and since his relationship with her as a dad hasn’t been great, he says he’s there as “a very expensive therapist and I’m here to give you one free session”, which he unpacks as three year’s worth of therapy in three minutes, doing what everyone wished their therapist would do – answer their questions about themselves. But first Molly has to ask the questions.

In fact, he leads her to the first one – “Why did I choose this lifestyle?” He tells her that her true addiction is “having power over powerful men”. Since the film portrayed the decaying relationship with his wife, I found it no great surprise that the second was “Do you think you were a good husband?” But Molly was pressed to come up with the third question and paused long enough for me to realise that I had absolutely no idea what it was going to be. Eventually it came, as her father anticipated: “Why didn’t you like me as much as my brothers?”

Now I haven’t ready Molly’s book so I don’t know how much dramatic license the scriptwriter has taken with this scene, and scriptwriters have the advantage of godlike control over their characters’ words and actions… even so, there’s useful material here for the aspie trying to understand typical human beings.

The middle question is clearly triggered by obvious bad actions. We see the husband cheating on his wife. Easy observation for an aspie – “rules are being broken!” But for Molly, perhaps it’s less about rules and more about her need for security – or her father as a hero-figure. (“I don’t have any heroes” she says.) The first question is about Molly’s motives – and I have commented previously about the power of self-knowledge in the noisy mind of a typical human being. The third is about Molly’s sense of how a significant family member feels about her.

I don’t know how my parents feel about me, except when they choose to put it into words. I know how they act towards me (kindly!), but I’ve never sat down to try to analyse their motives. They don’t share my faith, so I don’t expect their uncritical applause for the things I do as a Catholic priest. I do have a brother. They do treat him differently in some ways, but he’s different from me – he has a mortgage and I don’t – so it’s only fair they support us in different ways. Since I became an adult, I have never considered it my right to receive any particular support from my parents; whatever they do give, I accept gladly as an undeserved gift.

As an aspie seeking to understand human beings, it’s insightful to be reminded of two things. First, most people are conscious of the power-balance in relationships in a way that makes them seek more power – I guess my working model is that I don’t care who makes the decisions as long as they are good and fair; I can lead or follow a competent leader as required. Second, that most people are wired to care about what other people think about them, but especially their parents. As a pastor, that’s doubly important. Just because I don’t have role models or heroes, or expectations of my parents, it doesn’t mean that’s typical!

 

A Transcendental Meditation

A while back, I began a new series of blog posts, taking as my launchpad C. S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity. We considered Lewis’s description of the Law of Human Nature – to what extent all human beings have the same inner experience of ‘the voice of conscience’. Lewis argued that we had a common sense of fair play because we all have some sense of The Good (which, he goes on to argue, comes from God.) This leads us to a philosophical question – is Goodness objective?

I was recently alerted to the Relit approach to Evangelisation, which is build around awareness of the transcendentals – Truth, Goodness and Beauty – and the expectation that for any given human being, one of these is a more meaningful “way in” than another person. This seems plausible, and certainly reflects the reality that there are different kinds of human mind, more attuned to Truth or to Goodness or to Beauty. But is this telling us something only about diversity in human minds?

Are Goodness and Beauty objective? A priori truths seem to have some kind of objective existence. Mathematical axioms follow logically from premises; mathematical models of the physical universe successfully (and therefore objectively) predict how the universe will behave. There is a meaningful sense of which we can speak of a priori Truth existing independently of the existence of conscious human beings. We can cautiously also speak of contingent Truth existing objectively: whether we accept Darwinian evolution or read Genesis literally, either way there was a time when the earth existed without human beings to observe it. The world was the way it was at that time – that’s contingent truth. An atheist could go further and argue that Truth exists with no mind to observe it; a Theist would say that all which is True is known by the mind of God.

As for Beauty, Bishop Robert Barron tries to argue that there’s a difference between subjective and objective beauty. He likes deep-dish Chicago pizzza, but says that’s his own subjective taste. Yet he says that certain works of art – a Beethoven symphony, Chartres Cathedral – are objectively beautiful. The trouble is, I can’t sense the beauty in Beethoven or Chartres. And if I can’t, that means one of two things – either the beauty of these great art works is as subjective as the flavour of Bishop Barron’s favourite pizza – or there’s an objective standard for beauty I ought to be able to learn to apply whether or not I can feel the beauty.

Here I need to borrow an unusual word from Lewis. In his Out of the Silent Planet, he imagined Mars to be inhabited by three quite distinct species of thinking beings who coexisted peacefully with one another. The term for an intelligent, reasoning creature was hnau. When a human being lands on the planet – not speaking the same language as any of the inhabitants – the native tribes first have to figure out if the human is hnau or a mere animal.

Would other hnau recognise Truth? We expect they would recognise a priori mathematical truths and contingent physical truths about the universe we both inhabit. When human beings have sent deliberate messages into space we have used these universal concepts – prime numbers, the properties of the hydrogen atom, the molecular structure of simple sugars.

But are Goodness and Beauty objective? Would other hnau agree with our sense of what is Good or Beautiful, or inasmuch as the human race has a shared sense of the Good and the Beautiful, is this telling us about a common property of the human brain, shaped by natural selection for the survival of the human race?

I have written earlier in this blog about my lack of intuitive sense of beauty and of goodness. If Goodness and Beauty are objective, it should be possible to teach me some rules I can apply to determine if something is Good or Beautiful, even though I cannot experience goodness or beauty through a working “recognition circuit” in my own brain. If I cannot, in principle, learn to do so, then these things must be subjective, and the common experience of humanity is telling us only about the average perceptive properties of the human brain.

“If most people agree that standard X is more moral, or more beautiful, does that prove that standard X objectively exists?”

No. If the only hnau we can converse with is our own species, it is only telling us that most human brains have a “Goodness recognition circuit” or “Beauty recognition circuit” which gives weight to X. There might be some evolutionary advantage to us having that trait.

Good Vibrations

Recently, I had a conversation with a Catholic writer on spirituality. In one of her works she had referred to living plants ‘pulsing with silent, invisible energy’ and sensing God’s presence which caused an atmosphere to become charged with ‘vibrations of love’.

This sort of language generally unsettles me. Vibrations are the language of Eastern and New Age spirituality, not the Catholic tradition. And yet… I have learned in my journey as an Aspie that when I come across language that makes no intuitive sense to me, it is often a sign of how my lived experience of the world differs from that of the more typical majority. So rather than write her off as a clear case of someone straying outside the Catholic fold, I asked if she could describe these ‘vibrations’ in a way that could make sense to a person who had never personally experienced them. Even if what she has experienced might not be a ‘majority’ experience, it could still be valid.

She struggled to find the right words, and we went round in circles for a time. Then I asked if it was something like what happens when you put your hand on a refrigerator and feel it humming because the motor is running. She was happy with this analogy.

This got me thinking. Not only have I never experienced ‘vibrations’ in a spiritual context, but also, I seldom sense an ‘atmosphere’ when I walk into a room. Celtic writers might talk of praying in a ‘thin place’ but I wouldn’t know one if I fell through it. Yet many people use this language often enough that it seems to be meaningful to most listeners. Could it be that something akin to synaesthesia is taking place?

The human brain is capable of ceaseless wonders. There are many documented cases where the parts of the brain which deal with two different senses seem to be cross-wired, resulting in written words having characteristic colours or particular sounds translating as tactile experiences. Could it also be the case that the part of the brain which interprets emotions could be cross-wired with the part responsible for hearing or touch? Could a brain which, unlike mine, can take in and process a thousand micro-expressions to analyse a room of human beings, synthesise its findings in the form of an audible or tactile hum, which would then be perceived as a vibration? Might a similar mechanism account for those people who claim to be able detect the ‘aura’ or ‘bioenergy’ of another person? Indeed, I note that the Wikipedia article on Synaesthesia tantalisingly lists a rare form of synaesthesia as: personality-color (occasionally referred to as “auras”) – but without further expansion or reference.

I cannot rule out, of course, that the reason Eastern religions speak of a spiritual energy variously called chi, qi, ki or prana, is because such an energy genuinely exists but is such a subtle phenomenon that science has not yet been able to detect it – no scientist can ever definitively proclaim proof of non-existence except in tightly defined conditions. It is of course possible for an objective phenomenon to exist, but for some humans to be incapable of sensing it – such as color-blindness or ineed Aspie ‘mindblindness’ to emotional signals. I lean towards the idea that this energy is a cultural construct with no underlying phenomenon. But the ‘synaesthesia’ hypothesis raises an intriguing third possibility.