In my recent essay, I critiqued a form of straw man argument I call false equivalence. This critique was set in the context of a part-sermon I heard delivered by a Singaporean preacher of hypergrace prosperity teachings. This sermon clip showed a blatant incitement to covetousness where believers were encouraged to pray for more wealth, with corresponding accusation that those who were praying for just enough were being selfish! It was pure twisted logic and deception.
In that critique, I wrote about generosity as a motivation for prayer. While not eschewing prayers for increase of capacity and finance for the sake of others and for missions, I cautioned on the need for mindful vigilance regarding our motivation. It was imperative that we maintain a heart of pure generosity and zeal for God’s mission rather than succumbing to the seduction of greed and covetousness. Obviously, this is easier said than done. Hence, the need for prayer to keep a clean heart in the power of the Holy Spirit.
That said, I would like to examine the notion and practice of generosity, to unpack dimensions that may not be immediately apparent to many of us. When we speak of being generous as opposed to being selfish or stingy, we often assume that this choice and act of being generous is unproblematic. It may not occur to us that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to generating a virtuous or wholesome motivation as counterpoint to a non-virtuous or unwholesome motivation. We may think it is simply a matter of choice and decision. We presume we have free will and power in ourselves to make such a choice cleanly. But do we, really?
I suggest at the outset that our degrees of freedom are actually quite limited, in fact more like non-existent. I know this may sound controversial. But I have argued my case in a previous essay entitled Robots and Relationships, which I will refer my readers to. Here, I just wish to mention that in ourselves and by our own strength, as fallen sinful creatures, we are simply incapable of true generosity. Nor are we capable of any zeal for God and His mission. We may apparently choose to be generous (or so we think) but such choice is inevitably tainted by self-interest and sinful rebellion for devoid of faith we have no regard for God whatsoever. Sin pervades and corrupts us totally. Total depravity is our condition. In and of ourselves, we are utterly incapable of freely choosing virtue and goodness, let alone God.
Believer’s Faith and Motivation
But what about the faithful, those who have chosen to believe in Christ as their Lord and Saviour? First, at the outset, such believers, assuming they are genuinely saved, were able to believe by the irresistible and effectual grace of God, not by their own strength or faith. Faith is a gift granted by God in the believer’s regenerated spirit and not something that comes from themselves. Believing and being saved is a supernatural act, not a natural one.
Secondly, following one’s genuine conversion, one is enabled and empowered by the Holy Spirit who now dwells within one’s heart or spirit to effect growth and transformation into Christlikeness. Herein, the believer works in synergy with the Spirit to be conformed to the image and likeness of Christ, not in a separative dualistic way but more in an integralist one-and-several way. There is a mutuality of intimate relationality wherein the believer and God are together-with (syn-) each other in co-presencing and co-acting. This synergism can be seen as a dynamic integral process involving 100% God and 100% human at the same time, neither monistic nor dualistic. Wilfred, my friend and brother in Christ, calls this joint-and-several relationality.
Thirdly, in choosing generosity as our motivation for prayer, a believer is thus enabled and empowered by the Spirit to steer away from selfishness and greed to evoke a genuinely generous and charitable heart. But this process is not entirely free of risks and dangers. At any point in this process there is risk and danger of our being sabotaged and hijacked by selfish pride and covetousness. We must not underestimate the power of sin in us and overestimate our ability to submit to God and to stand in genuine generosity. Constant mindfulness and vigilance, themselves blessings from God by grace, are not dispensable.
Fourthly, even when overt selfishness and covetousness is set aside from the heart, there is no irrevocable freedom from self-reference. Not just yet. If we are ruthlessly honest with ourselves, even our thoughts and intentions in relation to helping others are stained by reference to self. We think and care about people close to us—our loved ones, family, friends, and people we like. We may extend our circle of concern to acquaintances and even strangers in our midst, but it is still limited to our domain of conscious awareness and physical locale in which we live and move.
Further afield, we may extend our concern to underprivileged ones in our community and society, our nation or country, perhaps even including the global community in various hot spots of poverty and strife. We may, if we are ecologically aware, extend concern to the planet and its entire biosphere, with all its flora and fauna in distress. All of these widening circles of concern share a common point of reference: ourselves. Yes, the self. All of these entities are linked to the elephant in the room, me. I stand as a separate individual in my plural contexts ranging from family to planet and everything in between but I am the central and common character throughout. What is the nature of this individual I call “I,” “me,” and “mine?” Have we bothered to investigate the nature and reality of this self?
Nature of Self
Fifthly, following from the fourth point above, we can examine more deeply the self to unpack just what this self entails. We see this self uncritically as permanent and enduring, partless and whole, and thus autonomous. We also see this self as substantial and self-sufficient, having its own degree of control and oversight of things. We see this self as a separate entity from the world, and our psyche and consciousness as separate from its content and matter external to itself. At the subtlest level, we see this self as inherently real, existing from its own side and powered by its own steam, and thus essential, self-existent, and non-contingent. But the problem is this: all of these levels of perceiving and conceiving the self are erroneous and based on falsehood. In other words, it is a delusion to grasp onto the self as existing in these postulated ways. This delusion can be termed self-grasping ignorance (avijja or avidya). This is the root of the totality of our self-created, recalcitrant, reiterative suffering or what we can call cyclic existence (samsara) for short.
Sixthly, from the above discussion, we can see that no matter how wide our circle of concern is, we are inescapably part of the picture as our reference point—our self that is grasped as truly existing in all the myriad ways—persists as the central figure. The self-grasping ignorance that pervades our entire experience drives the drama of our existence, tainting every aspect of it with affliction. From self-grasping ignorance comes self-referential desiring and craving; from desiring and craving comes self-referential grasping and clinging; from grasping and clinging comes self-referential becoming, a concretizing of person, thing, and situation; from becoming comes the birth of self-referential false identities; from the birth of false identities comes the totality of affliction and suffering, pain and grief, despair and sorrow, and eventual decay and death of reified self falsely grasped as real. Fundamental to this self-grasping ignorance is the reification of the factors of personality (i.e. form, sensation, perception, volitional activity, and consciousness) or phenomena (i.e. mental images and constructs). Making the inherently real self of person (reified person) follows in the wake of making the inherently real self of personality-factors and phenomena (reified factors and phenomena). This cogent though highly concise analysis of self-making and self-made suffering comes from insights of Gotama Buddha (c. 480-400 BCE) and Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (c. 150-250 CE).
Self and Generosity
What do self-making and self-made suffering have to do with generosity? Simply this: with a reified self that is pervasive and ubiquitous across all our imaginations and thoughts about others, no matter the size and scope of our concern, our sense of generosity is thus inescapably tainted with self-reference and self-grasping. We inevitably reify our own selves and the selves of others; and we reify the concepts of persons, community, society, nation-state, and planet. Even if we see ourselves as the sum total of our relationships, this relational self is reified as inherently real as are the multitude of relationships themselves. Entrenched in this sea of reification, we generate a reified sense of generosity towards these reified subjects and objects that are referenced to self and hence belonging to self.
We then pray to God for increased capacity and finance all of which are marked by reification and grasped as inherently real from their own side. While this might be true for God who is the only self-existent One (though it is possible to deconstruct this statement but it will not be attempted here), it is not true for everything else. Everything and everyone is utterly contingent, nominal, and dependently-arisen. Thus, because reality is dissonant with appearances and our experience of these appearances, our motivation and prayer are inevitably shot through with affliction. A case in point is seen when we fail to have our prayers answered by God. What happens then—in the case of a reified self who is praying reified prayers, motivated by a reified sense of self-referential generosity, to a reified idea of God, for some reified outcomes—is a conditioned reaction of anger, dissatisfaction, and disappointment (directed at God) leading eventually to afflictive suffering. There is no peace.
Seventhly, what hope is there for a praying believer in this case? Christ. In and through the common and sanctifying grace of God in Christ, by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the believer can enter into a process of stabilizing, clarifying, brightening, and sharpening one’s mind to progressively penetrate into the deep nature of self of person and phenomena. Through this Spirit-enlightened meditative inquiry, the entire structure of self-making and self-referencing rooted in reification is laid bare, stripped to its coreless core, and eradicated in breakthrough insights of emptiness (being empty of inherent existence) and nonduality (being without bifurcation into inherent subject and object). As a result, the one who prays, the praying itself, and the One to whom we pray reveal themselves as luminous, boundless, non-referential field of spacious reality impervious to any ideational prison or dualistic fixation. Only then, in those ineffable moments of lucid breakthrough, do we find genuine non-referential generosity powering selfless prayer devoid of affliction and suffering. In such prayer, there is fathomless peace that is unshakeable by any wind of change or dissonance. Regardless of the outcome of prayer, there is only equanimity and peace beyond all understanding.
Thinking about God
Finally, we come to God himself. Thus far, we have imbibed profound insights from the perfection of wisdom (prajna-paramita) tradition traceable to the original teachings of Gotama Buddha. But what about the biblical tradition? Is there any wisdom there that can ensure our safety and security as we pray for increase and multiplication? Yes, there is. The sovereignty and providence of our triune God are eternal truths that warrant our full attention and heart allegiance. Realizing the truth of God’s sovereign grace and his providence in relating to us and our requests can help us yield to His purpose and will in our lives. The peace of such inner surrender is only possible if we mindfully and consistently meditate on God’s sovereign and providential nature to such an extent that these cognitive truths sink down deep into our hearts to emblaze our heart’s affections. Put differently, we need to preach, reflect, and meditate on these biblical truths so deeply into our hearts that they, being thoroughly marinated within and their exquisite flavours unimpededly released, cause us to taste and savour the delicious nourishment of God’s awesome grace and wisdom in however he chooses to answer our prayers.
Western Christianity has developed historically in the intellectual context of Hellenistic philosophy. As such, the underlying metaphysic that informs and saturates Christian theological understandings is a substantialist or essentialist one. There is unquestioned assumption of essence or substance in the way Christian thinkers and teachers speak about personhood, things, world, nation, kingdom, and in fact everything including of course God himself. Hence, the notions of inherency and self-existence are the metaphysical foundations of Christian theologies of God in essence and God in his works. What needs to be interrogated is the unspoken assumption that western metaphysics must be inevitably wedded to biblical theology. Why should we dictate that Aristotle rather than Gotama or Nagarjuna be the epistemological and ontological pillar of all Christian theologizing?
Following this unconventional line of interrogation, I have published an academic article in 2018 in the Journal of Reformed Theology on the possibility of a non-substantialist conception of the Trinity. By extension, this non-substantialist ontology can be applied to all biblical notions of personhood and thingness, events and mysteries, practices and sacraments, identity and community. Radical as this may sound, I believe such fresh epistemological and ontological explorations are not anti- but eminently biblical. There is no intrinsic reason why western Greek philosophy should be the exclusive substratum for biblical theologizing. It is time for Asian philosophy to make its contributions in an Asian century. Are you ready for the philosophic-theological ride? Would you be curious to see Gotamian-Nagarjunian ontology and Dharmakirtian epistemology as fresh foundations for Christian theology? I am. In future essays and even