Thursday, September 20, 2018

Seven Sources for Soul Growth

Imaginary friend: So, Greg, here we are back at Chico's Upper Bidwell Park, and our peripatetic musings on the soul is about to end, and I
wonder what topic you'd like to address.
GSC: I want to put it all together and respond to the question of how do our souls get formed. What are the sources for soul growth?
Friend: And by the way, who am I?
GSC: You’re the people that have affected and do influence my life spiritually—like my pastors Earl Palmer, Mark Labberton, “the Quad” (which is comprised of me, Gary, Ric, and Dan), and my wife, Laura, and countless unnamed others.
Friend: All those disparate people together?
GSC: Yes, see what you can do!
Friend: OK, maybe I’ll just ask questions! Can you list the sources for soul growth?

Seven Sources for Spiritual Growth
GSC: There are seven that I can think of: Scripture, theological tradition, art, prayer, meditation (or contemplation, mindfulness), corporate worship, and service.
Friend: Ok, speed round! Scripture?
GSC: It’s the definitive and authoritative keystone of the way God has acted and spoken. First of all, we’ve gotta read it and grasp the whole sweep of Scripture, to know God’s story and see how it becomes our story. Here’s a reading plan to grasp the overall story of the Bible that I helped put together. 
We also need to let it saturate our mind, to chew on it as a cow chews the cud. One excellent practice is lectio divina (literally "divine reading" in Latin), which leads us to find a passage of the Bible and see how it speaks to us. 
Friend: Theological tradition?
GSC: We have to get to know the masters like Augustine and his Confessions, John Calvin, Blaise Pascal, and C. S. Lewis(And, of course, there are many, many more.)I’ll get back to Lewis and his Screwtape Letters later, but the point here is to learn from these are great minds and souls that have gone before.
Friend: Art?
GSC: Art comes in so many forms. I’ll just comment on visual art and music. When I look at this piece, how can I not take in a new aspect of God’s care for us as the Prodigal God that takes in the Prodigal Son? When I listen to great music like Hillsong, I find God’s presence.
Friend: Meditation?
GSC: This has probably been the greatest area of growth in the past few years for me—to find myself quieted and calmed like a child (Psalm 131). I’ve been drawn recently to the practice of mindfulness as a way of calming my soul and preparing me for intercession, for service, and for life generally.
Friend: Prayer as intercession?
GSC: By prayer here, I mean, with Paul (Philippians 4:6-7), intercession with thanksgiving. We lay those burdens on God.
Friend: Corporate worship?
GSC: As much as like Alfred North Whitehead, I disagree with him that religion is what we do with our “solitariness”—we need to meet together and direct our attention, our praise to God. It can be pretty wonderful. But I also have to mention C. S. Lewis’s comments in The Screwtape Letters on the disappointing reality of the local congregation, the church as it actually exists.
It’s so good, I’ll quote at length—and remember this is from the perspective of a devil who’s trying to tempt a human soul,
“One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do riot mean the Church as we see her spread but through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes I our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather in oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print.” C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Friend: Service?
GSC: Jesus tells us that he is somehow present in the “least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46). In serving in his name, we actually meet him. Which is kind of wild. It’s all about our public witness to the Gospel, which is where I’d include our testimony, our words, as well.

The Most Important Source
Friend: We’ve arrived at the end of our walk. 
GSC: Speaking of “ends” or goals, I’ll close with this: Our hope is a beautifully integrated life, fully alive. Integration—that’s what the Spirit brings. And if the soul and the spiritual life mean anything, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And that’s where I’ll end, with this hope—the hope grounded in the One who will continue the work that has begun in and among us. That hope is the Spirit of life.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Two Provocative Studies on Christian Belief and Affiliation

This week I read two articles.
  • One reminded me that the Christian faith has intellectual content and thus that people leave the faith when it fails to come up with durable and convincing answers.
  • The other highlighted that we often choose our religion for non-spiritual reasons, that many retrofit our religion to fit our political and social commitments.
(Incidentally, this week I’m taking a brief repose from the Soul Dialogues, although there are certainly connections.)

J. Warner Wallace, "Young Christians are leaving the church--Here's why"
Let’s look at the first: J. Warner Wallace wrote this, 
“When asked why they didn’t believe, many said their views about God had 'evolved' and some reported having a 'crisis of faith.'" 
He concludes by championing the idea that we need a “forensic faith” in which we offer a response to “intellectual skepticism.” (I’m using his italics.)

Bottom line: He overstates that “nones” leave the faith because of intellectual reasons, but rightly highlights that there is some cognitive content to Christianity. As a general conclusion, I find it hard to disagree with this statement: 
“It’s time for believers to accept their responsibility to explain what Christianity proposes and why these propositions are true, especially when interacting with young people who have legitimate questions.” 

Perry Bacon, Jr. 
"Americans Are Shifting The Rest Of Their Identity To Match Their Politics"
And then Perry Bacon Jr. writes
“We generally think of a person’s race or religion as being fixed — and that those parts of identity (being black, say, or evangelical Christian) drive political views. Most African-Americans vote Democratic. Most evangelical Christians vote Republican. But New York University political scientist Patrick Egan has written a new paper showing evidence that identity and politics operate in the opposite direction too — people shift the non-political parts of their identity, including ethnicity and religion, to align better with being a Democrat or a Republican.”
Bottom line: Religious identity is becoming less and less important in our country, which makes sense of the “nones” as a phenomenon—the 35-40% of emerging adults with no religious affiliation. Many, who lean left ethically and politically, are deciding not to affiliate because the church seems increasingly associated with the conservative views generally and with Republican Party specifically. 

How do we bring these together?
It’s not completely clear to me how to bring these together, except to affirm that yes, we do need intellectual foundations for belief, and yes, sometimes religious affiliation is not as important as other affiliations. (And, yes, as we see our country become less and less religious, this latter finding suggests that our country will continue to head in that direction.)

What do you think?

A final thought
With all that in mind, I'll offer this tentative conclusion: My own observation (derived from other studies and from my interviews) is that most emerging adults do not leave or reject Christian faith solely, or primarily, based on intellectual content. (Nor do most atheists.) It seems to be that we as human beings wind together emotional grounds ("heart," as many call it) for ascribing to some form of belief or worldview or personal philosophy with some measure of intellectual or cognitive grounds ("mind"). Importantly, this also includes our tribal affiliations. 

The United States is, in my experience, privileging the mind less and less. But it would be illogical to conclude that there is no place for intellectual engagement with Christianity. That's one reason I was interviewed on an apologetics podcast, Deeper Waters, on Saturday. 

I, for one, would not be a follower of Christ without those who think well and deeply about their faith and take the time to communicate their reasons to believe.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Wholly—and Holy—God’s (Greg Goes Wild or Greg’s Diatribe or A Kind of Soul Dialogue)

Sometimes in our family, we practice a soapbox moment, where we simply stand and
proclaim our views… as if people really cared. So I’ll start with a question on the soul from my imaginary friend, which is softball pitch for me to diatribe.

Imaginary friend: We’ve been talking for a while, and I’ve been wondering if there’s some payoff from all this discussion of the soul. Greg, what’s your point?

GSC: Integration. That’s my point. Bringing all of our soul to all of God. 
To be one, wholly—and holy—God’s. 
That is the point of talking about the soul.

Is it ok if I preach it? I’m convinced there’s just one you, and there’s simply one me that God created. We can talk about “body” and “soul” and “spirit” and “mind.” But God doesn’t want us separated. God wants us to be one person who relates to our one Lord. 

Now various sciences tell us that parts of the human brain developed in different ways, and so it’s natural (in that sense) to feel dis-unified. But spiritual life is the practice and power that brings us together and in some ways works to reverse what’s natural.

I mean, disunity is at least one huge component of sin. Isn’t that what Paul lamented in Romans 7—“I don’t understand my own actions”—that there were at least two selves fighting against each other? Sometimes it feels like a barroom brawl inside of my noggin!

And this seems to me to be one key element of monotheism—our belief in one God. We don’t go from deity to deity, like ancient pagans did—a god for our work guild, another god for love, another for the political life, and yet another for the home. And son on… As Christians, we know one God who loves, creates, and redeems all of us.

At our best then, our souls aren’t separate parts of us, warring against everything else—against our flesh, or whatever else.

Instead, being fully alive is bringing all of us to all of God. If anything, the soul ought to describe that unity. To be one, wholly—and holy—God’s. That is the point of talking about the soul.

How’s that for a soapbox moment?

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Soul Dialogue #4

I’m getting ready for a 30-minute interview on the NPR program “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” and so I thought I’d have this week's post take the form of a radio interview. 

Radio interviewer: I'm here with Greg Cootsona, author of C.S. Lewis and and the Crisis of Christian, as well as his latest book Mere Science and Christian Faith. I want to start right off with this: We all see, Greg—don’t we?—that there’s no real search, like in the good old days, for what they used to call "the Christian mind."

GSC: “The Christian mind”—I haven’t heard that phrase for a while. But it does sound something like “we take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5)—not exactly what Paul was saying, but probably a reasonable extension of it.

Interviewer: Yes, you can describe it in a number of ways. And here’s another one: there’s no one seeking some overarching Christian philosophy—a worldview, perhaps—that puts it all together.

GSC: Yes, you’re spot on! (As they say in England..) It seems like my college students have become such skilled manipulators of information that they don’t have a unifying thread for all of it.

Interviewer: What do you mean?

GSC: Today’s twentysomething is a digital native, a person who always lived with the panoply of digital devices—and especially smart phones—at their fingertips. They also know the explosion of options that’s represented in the fact that today there are almost 1.5 billion websites.

Interviewer: So, Greg, you’re saying that many people today live in contradictory ways? Now that makes sense to me, but do you have any evidence?

GSC: Yes, and I’ll start with an anecdote from one of my interviews with college students—it was the hardcore chemistry major who told me,
“I’m very science heavy. I would love to have faith, but I need to have the facts… hard data.” And yet she continued, “I prayed, and the prayer worked. So I keep praying even if I don’t believe there’s anything beyond the material world.”
Interviewer: Do Christians do the same thing?

GSC: Absolutely. I'm continually surprised by the various incompatible spiritualities, philosophies, and political ideologies that I hear from Christian students.

Interviewer: In light of this contradictory pluralism running through our brains, is there a way a Christian mind can help?

GSC: It strikes me that one key is emotions, to which we attach ourselves in incompatible ideas. But our emotions change quite quickly. And so we need to create the Christian mind to help us moderate all those vicissitudes.

Interviewer: “Vicissitudes”—that’s quite a word! Impressive... At any rate, are you asserting that it’s simply getting your head in the right space—and that will solve everything?

GSC: No, certainly not. What I am saying will make a difference is directing all of us toward the love of God. Or as Jesus phrased it so well, 
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Jesus (Matthew 22:37)
He’s saying it’s not just the mind, but that we shouldn’t forget it either.

a Trinitarian-looking coat hook?
Interviewer: You’ve also got to complete the passage! Jesus adds this (and I'm going to emphasize one phrase): 
“This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The Law and the Prophets all hang on these two commandments.” Jesus (Matthew 22:38-40)
GSC: Why is “all hang on” so important?

Interviewer: Because Christians today don’t have anywhere to hang all their ideas, feelings, intuitions, emotions, notions, impulses, sensations, and concepts. And that’s a major loss. But Jesus tells us that love of God and one another is what we need.

GSC: Wow! Next time let me be the interviewer!

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Next Installment on Writing Your Book: Six Steps in Brief

School has started at Chico State, and I see my life becoming full. Blogging entries may suffer as a result.

So I’m going to simply set out the next six steps on writing with the hopes of fleshing them out at irregular intervals in the next few weeks.

  1. Write three drafts: Down draft. Up draft. Out draft. Anne Lamott put it this way, "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something -- anything -- down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft -- you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft -- you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy."
  2. Be curious. And read a lot.
  3. You probably don’t need an agent.
  4. Locate the right publisher.
  5. Find your marketing platform and promote.
  6. Live and write in community.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Positive Psychology, Scripture, and Becoming Fully Alive: Another Soul Dialogue

Nick (my imaginary friend): Ok, Greg, so far it seems like you’ve avoided the topic of positive psychology, Scripture, and becoming fully alive. Since it’s smoky this morning in Chico—the fires are taking their tolllet’s stop walking, and let me hear it all—whatever you’ve got to say. I’ll let you do most of the talking.

Greg: Let me start here this: When I was trained in the humanities starting at Cal, I learned from leading lights like Sigmund Freud that religion is an "illusion." (Today Richard Dawkins echoes this and calls religious belief a “delusion.”) 

Put in simple form: If you believe in God, you’re crazy. The stronger your belief, the crazier you are.

But here’s the weird thing: More sensible research, more scientific research—the kind backed up by quantitative and statistical analysis—leads to the opposite conclusion. By and large, religious belief leads to happier lives.
Four quick examples: First of all, one of the best resources for connecting faith ands science, the eSTEAM newsletter, which produced a whole issue on psychology

Second, the Greater Good Magazine at UCB (maybe my alma mater has learned something since I was there as an undergrad) has demonstrated the psychological benefits of forgiveness, which of course is a key teaching in Christianity.

Third, Health wrote about the “Five Surprising Health Benefits of Religion” like lower blood pressure, more life satisfaction, more resilience, healthier immune system, a longer life, 

And finally, even the HuffPo (not generally predisposed to propagating religious belief) published a piece on “Why Religion Is Linked With Better Health And Well-Being” 

You might say that, when we say yes to God, we say yes to happiness, the abundant life, and human flourishing. 

Chose one of the three for a description, but if you ask, Do I want one of these? The answer is Yes.

Nick: Ok, you’ve talked about the scientific studies. What about Scripture and human flourishing?

Greg: Just one example of many possibilities… I remember attending a conference on technology and faith where, at a lunchtime conversation, a bright, young physicist, who struck me as both articulate and ebullient, told me how she had struggled with depression. One of her problems was perseverating—thinking about the same thing over and over. The cognitive response she learned through her therapist was to let her brain saturate on positive thoughts—to  perseverate on positivity, perhaps. 

She pointed to Philippians as a beautiful expression of that work. Here’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrases a key verse:
Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” Philippians 4:8, The Message
Nick: So there’s a way to wrap all these things together—positive psychology, Scripture, and becoming fully alive?

Greg: In a word, Yes.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Re: Writing. The Buckshot Approach

One of the scenes I often see in Hollywood movies that I don’t also in real life is the writer absolutely taken with an idea, in fact a being so consumed with a passion that she can’t help but write. Not only that—but the ultimate product after those torrid hours of creativity is absolutely stunning, a miracle of inspiration and genius. 

The fantasy of inspiration and genius
 Can I burst Hollywood’s bubble? Writing hardly ever works like that. Now, if it does for you, please don’t tell me or your friends who are writers because we might become incredibly angry. It’s just not nice. 
For most mortals, I’ve got the sound piece of advice: Write on a schedule.

That’s the only way to produce something good. You have to create a rhythm in which you write at a certain each day. Or every other day. What is that time? You can answer that better than anyone. But most writers I know practice their craft early in the day. I find that as early as I can get to the computer after workout and a good breakfast—and before answering emails and cluttering my brain—that’s the time to create something.

Writing means rewriting
This leads me to more advice: Write and rewrite.

Please—if there’s anything I can implore you to avoid—Don’t fill the world with more bad writing! Anybody with a cell can tweet. We can even dictate to Siri and post to Facebook with anything like rewriting. Or fact checking. Or clarifying your meaning. Those are sins I’m hoping we all avoid.
Now, to be clear, I’m not sure you have to be as obsessive about writing with clarity as what I’ve heard about the brilliant novelist Marilynne Robinson (who wrote one of the greatest American novels of our time that also won a Pulitzer, Gilead). I’m told that she writes only on those people for whom she’s read their entire body of work. (Twenty-three years separate Gilead from her first novel, Housekeeping.) If Robinson's rubric sounds just a bit extreme and way too fanatical for most of us earthlings.
Nonetheless, we can still write. And re-write. How? I find that journaling a good practice because those entries exist just for me, and thus my brain turns off the edit switch. 
Clearly not using buckshot here
Blogging is another valuable practice. I look at my blog like visual artists view their “studies” do before they proceed fill the canvases. This blog is filled with my essays. And I mean that word in the sense of its roots. The “essay” comes from a Middle French word that means “to try.” So try some ideas out. Create a blog. Write for a local paper or small website. Or for your friend’s newsletter. 

The buckshot approach
In a way, I’m outlining a buckshot approach. I’m no hunter (see the picture of the first time I shot a handgun for evidence). Still I do know that you can put a single bullet in a gun and take one shot to hit the target. Or you can pack it with buckshot, which sprays around eight pellets. That way you don’t have to be as accurate. Or you can be more extreme and use a number 10 birdshot with its 848 pellets. 

In any event, I think my point is clear enough: Keep writing and rewriting. Fill the paper or your screen with enough attempts and you’ll hit something at some point. Or at least you’ll have tried.
So just write. And do it on a schedule.