Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Psychology for Spiritual Growth?

November 29, 2009

Some Christians don’t trust psychology. I don’t believe all its conclusions, but that doesn’t mean it’s without benefit. I wrote a short piece about psychology as it applies to spiritual growth at, which I hope you find helpful.


Robert Wright on Anomie and Salvation

July 31, 2009

From the NYT:

If salvation is indeed about feeling that you’re on the right side of the law, then you don’t need God — or even, as in my case, the looming memory of God — to seek it. You can be an atheist and feel that there’s such a thing as right and wrong, and that you’ll try to align your life with this moral axis. In fact, I think you can make a sheerly intellectual, non-faith-based case that there is some such transcendent source of meaning, and even something you could call a moral order “out there.” I even think it’s fair to suspect that there’s a purpose unfolding on this planet, leaving aside the much tougher question of what’s behind the purpose.

But, for my money, there’s nothing quite like the idea that what’s behind that purpose is something that can approve or disapprove of you. It keeps you on your toes, and it keeps your life mattering, even when it’s only a feeling, and no longer a belief.

Is a feeling of purpose and meaning truly enough? There is a power in commitment and belief that doesn’t seem to extend to even strong feelings.

How well-ordered could culture be should everybody act only in accordance with strong feelings? Would Christianity ever have emerged as a social order had the early Christians (many of whom were martyred) had only strong feelings to support their actions?

The Christian Life: Not for sissies

July 29, 2009

When I decided some 30 years ago to follow Jesus, I knew that some things were going to be difficult. Following Jesus means calling him Lord, as Peter tells us. That’s Lord; he’s the boss, the owner, the king. That doesn’t come easy to us Americans in particular. (By the way, as I wrote earlier, some atheists are wishful thinkers; they dislike the idea that there is a Lord or a king, but would rather think themselves masters of their own fate, etc. In short, they’re unwilling to surrender themselves to the Lord, so they wish he didn’t exist. But wishing something doesn’t make it so.)

It’s wonderful to know that Jesus paid the penalty for my sin (1 Peter 3:18) but a consequence is that, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, I’m to live for him and not for myself! Indeed, Jesus himself said that “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23-24). This is definitely not the doctrine of ignoble ease.

But I thought at least some things would be easier. Free will and determinism puzzled me; I hoped the Bible or the Church could resolve the paradox. No such luck — if anything the problem became more complex! “Determinism” became “predestination,” and the Bible says God holds me responsible for my choices — even though they’re predestined — not much help in making even my intellectual life easier!

Then there are the questions of exactly how I’m to live: how much time should I spend in various activities, how much should I give to the poor, and so on. I had the Tevye mentality, and sometimes this line still appeals to me:

Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

from Fiddler on the Roof

That doesn’t happen, at least not in healthy churches; at most you’ll get a starting point, and the rest is between you and God. Part of my problem is that I’m asking the wrong questions, because the Bible has a lot to say about what God wants: Love one another, be kind to one another, forgiving each other, speak truth with your neighbor. Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. Comfort the widow and the orphan, don’t be corrupted. And so on. That’s what he wants, but I’m thinking about how much time to spend exercising vs doing Bible study. (Or, maybe not quite as bad, thinking about who does what in my spiritual growth.)

I guess that is my real problem: those things he already told me to do — they’re too hard! It’s a lot easier to figure out a division of time and resources, a list of practical steps that I can actually execute — spend this much time in prayer, Bible study, meditation; give that much money to the poor, etc. — and think that I’m done. This is the problem that the religious leaders had when Jesus walked the earth: they were focused on rituals that could make them feel good about themselves, instead of on what God really wanted, and went completely off the rails.

So what’s the point?

No, I don’t want to scare anyone off, any more than Jesus did when he talked about bringing a sword or hating your parents or having to give up everything you have.

I think I just noticed that things are often hard to figure out in the Christian life, and I wanted to encourage you that if you sometimes feel confused, you aren’t alone. And the other thing I think is that we’re not always supposed to know what to do. But we must always know who to trust.

Upward Over the Mountain by Iron & Wine

March 28, 2009

Saturday song lyric:

Mother don’t worry
I killed the last snake that lived in the creek bed
Mother don’t worry
I’ve got some money I saved for the weekend
Mother, remember being so stern
with that girl who was with me?
Mother, remember the blink of an eye
when I breathed through your body?

So may the sunrise bring hope
where it once was forgotten
Sons are like birds flying upward
over the mountain

Mother, I made it up
from the bruise of a floor of this prison
Mother, I lost it all
of the fear of the Lord I was given
Mother forget me now
that the creek drank the cradle you sang to
Mother forgive me
I sold your car for the shoes that I gave you

So may the sunrise bring hope
where it once was forgotten
Sons are like birds flying
upward over the mountain

Mother, don’t worry
I’ve got a coat and some friends on the corner
Mother, don’t worry
she’s got a garden we’re planting together
Mother, remember the night
that the dog had her pups in the pantry?
Blood on the floor and the fleas on their paws
and you cried ’til the morning

So may the sunrise bring hope
where it once was forgotten
Sons are like birds flying
upward over the mountain

See live performance here.

Christianity’s Middle Eastern Heritage

March 5, 2009

From Gary M. Burge at Christianity Today:

We are used to thinking that the Middle East is made up of Jews and Muslims. But today there are over 10 million Arabic-speaking Christians who trace their history to the Day of Pentecost—where, as they remind us, Arabs were present (Acts 2:11). They anchor their legacy to an old culture that preceded Islam and Arabic by centuries. Until the arrival of Islam (7th century), Syriac—a sister language to Aramaic—was the mother tongue of the Middle Eastern church from Iraq to Palestine. In Egypt, it was Coptic. In fact, Syriac and Coptic continued to be spoken for centuries alongside Arabic as Islam slowly tried to replace them with its own language from Arabia. Soon Christians were speaking Arabic freely, and yet they retained their distinctive cultural traditions that were deeply rooted in Syriac ways.

These eastern Semitic-speaking Christians enjoyed a rich, flourishing world that is now invisible to us. (A quick read of William Dalrymple’s magnificent travel drama, From the Holy Mountain, will take you there if you are inclined. Dalrymple follows the faint trail of a 6th century pilgrim monk named John Moschos who wandered eastern Christendom.) By the 5th century—think Chalcedon—the West simply lost any interest in these churches. Few today have heard of Ephrem the Syrian, a prolific Syrian theologian and hymn writer born in AD 306 and venerated as a saint among Orthodox Christians. Or Ibn al-Tayyib, the towering New Testament scholar of 10th century Baghdad.

Thus Latin and Greek were not the only primary languages of emerging Christianity. Syriac was the third and soon became the chief form of communication among the churches of Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. These believers bequeathed to us three ancient translations: the Old Syriac, the Peshitta, and the Harclean. Each represents the work of Christians who shared instinctively the culture of Jesus. Translation is always interpretation. And when an ancient Middle Eastern Christian brings a Greek gospel into his native Syriac, he will often lend insight by mere nuance and word choice. From the 9th century on, many versions appeared, and they remain goldmines of Middle Eastern Christian exegesis.

Not giving up anything for Lent

February 28, 2009

Occasionally, as this morning, I open Merton’s No Man Is an Island. I can only read a little — a few paragraphs or a few pages at most — lest my head explode. His chapter on Asceticism and Sacrifice seems particularly apt now at the start of Lent. A few of his remarks and my reactions:

  • If my soul silences my flesh by an act of violence, my flesh will take revenge on the soul, secretly infecting it with a spirit of revenge (p.96).
      Indeed. Like many zealous young Christians, I went through a short period, a long time ago, when I woke very early to pray. I’m not sure it was such a good idea. Why did I do it? Perhaps I was inspired by some old saints who did that. But they did that as a result of growth in their lives. They’d gotten to a point in their lives where they hungered so much for that communion with God early in the morning that they took that step. I, on the other hand, just did it because it seemed like a cool thing to do. Did I do it to brag to my friends about how early I was up in the morning praying? I hope not, but I can’t tell you today for sure that I didn’t.
  • There is only one true asceticism: that which is guided not by our own spirit but by the Spirit of God (p.96)…. Our self-denial is sterile and absurd if we practice it for the wrong reasons or, worse still, without any valid reason at all (p.101).
      This is the reason I’m not giving up anything for Lent: I don’t have a sense from God that there’s any particular thing that he wants me to. NPR had a piece a few years ago about giving up this or that for Lent. A young man talked about giving up candy or something but not having seen any results from it; he wondered if what he ought to do instead is something positive and active: adding service and charity to hsi life, rather than subtracting beer or facebook from it (paraphrasing liberally).
  • The only sacrifice He accepts is the purity of our love. Any renunciation that helps us to love God more is good and useful. (p.107)
      Perhaps I wrote or spoke too soon. Have I some habit that distracts me from loving God? Crossword puzzles perhaps, or the Jumble®? H’m…
  • The whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God and from the spirit into the wilderness of neurosis. (p.109)
      Modern life certainly does seem geared that way. By its emphasis on “productivity,” the mechanism of modern life wordlessly declares what’s valuable, and says we don’t have “enough” of it. (I put “productivity” in quotes because the things we try to optimize “productivity” of aren’t intrinsically worthwhile: lines of non-comment source statements, stock portfolio valuation, “efficiency” — in contrast with the image of productivity shown at right.)
  • Bodily agitation… is an enemy to the spirit. And by agitation I do not necessarily mean exercise or movement. There is all the difference in the world between agitation and work. (p.109)
      The Proverbs tell us that a heart at peace gives life to the body, but passion rots the bones (the NIV has “envy”). Not that we should strive to have passionless lives, or to remove ourselves from anything we might like to have, but I think Merton is telling us that when we are agitated, our bodies are distracting our spirit from what the latter should attend to. I think we’ve all experienced both situations implied here — working hard (but being at peace) and sitting still (while being agitated inside). No prize for guessing which is healthier.

So what is the secret? How do we remain at peace with the world pressing around us? Quit reading the paper? Stop watching the news? Turn off the cell phone and the email?

That’s probably good to do sometimes — as Jesus sometimes did. On the other hand, we probably don’t want to completely withdraw either; Jesus prayed for his disciples (John 17:15-17) — including us, John 17:20-21: My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.

So we need to retreat sometimes, but we’re not to withdraw entirely. I’m sure community is important, too, but that’s for another post.

Calvinism and Liberty

February 8, 2009

From Judge Michael McConnell’s review here of Witte’s The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism:

King George III blamed the American Revolution on Calvinist clergymen, whom he called “the black regiment”—a reference to the austere clerical robes worn by New England preachers. He was not far wrong. But few educated Americans now are aware of the Calvinist contribution to founding-generation ideals of republicanism, equality, and resistance to tyranny. If asked, most modern Americans would attribute 18th-century political liberalism to the secular Enlightenment, and thus to the decline in religious belief among people of the West. Most think the idea of the social contract, along with the right of the people to rebel against tyranny, originated with John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, published in 1790. Some, whose knowledge of Puritanism extends no farther than the Salem witch trials, imagine that Calvinist theology must have opposed democracy and liberty.

John Witte’s new book, The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism, will therefore come as an eye-opener to many. According to Witte, Reformed Protestants developed a biblically based theory of social contract (or “covenant”), together with ideas of popular sovereignty, fundamental rights, and the legitimacy of revolution, more than 100 years before Locke. Witte offers the essential scholarly caveats—Calvinism was not the only source of ideas of political freedom; when Calvinists were in power they did not always extend the benefits of freedom to others—but fundamentally, he presents the claim that Reformed Protestantism was the “seedbed” of American constitutionalism: “American religious, ecclesiastical, associational, and political liberty were grounded in fundamental Puritan ideas of conscience, confession, community, and commonwealth.” In fact, as he points out, “every one of the guarantees in the 1791 Bill of Rights had already been formulated in the prior two centuries,” along with “a number of the core ideas of American constitutionalism—popular sovereignty, federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, church and state, and more” by “Calvinist theologians and jurists.”