Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Reflection on Technology and Angst

I've been pondering again why so often we are so drawn to our smart phones instead of to other human beings.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of both Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2012) and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015) emphasizes (by my reading) how technology invades and prevents true human community. Tech often gets in the way of true conversation and empathy.

In my hometown, there’s a phone app developed by Chico State grads, PocketPoints, which rewards its users if they turn off the phone during college classes. As they state clearly on their website, 
“Phone addiction is a pervasive problem.” 
A friend—a younger friend at that—cannot help but notice that, during a quick stretch break I usually offer my students in the middle of lectures, the students quietly text their friends or check their social media instead of meeting the people right in their vicinity. He’s rather blunt at this: “Why wouldn’t these guys want to know all the gorgeous girls that are all around them?”

Or as Turkel puts it: 
"Texting offers just the right amount of access, just the right amount of control. She is a modern Goldilocks: for her, texting puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance. The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay."

Indeed. We feel anxious about messy conversations in real time, with real people, and thus more comfortable “connecting” virtually. And—though I doubt this is true in my classes—my students are probably just a bit bored. 

Boredom and anxiety—that potent combination which together make the German word angst and the French version ennui—propel us toward our cell phones like the proverbial moth to flame. The little shot of dopamine that’s released as we are stimulated by the next scream has addictive qualities. And so we continue. Angst stimulates our flight toward cell phones. And so it is particularly with emerging adults, who were given screens to quiet them as fussy babies. Such earlier training is sticky and recalcitrant.

The lurking question is what will retrain us. But I'll leave that unanswered for now...

Monday, February 29, 2016

Time and God's Eternity

I'm working on an academic article on time and eternity. I'm particularly gripped by the question of whether God's eternity implies that God is timeless. My answer to date is, No, in some way, God has to have movement and progression in order for there to be speech and music in heaven. Moreover, God's Incarnation in Christ requires that God has touched the temporal sphere and inhabits it. At least, that's a thesis (or maybe two) I'm pursuing.

Since this piece will surely will not see the light of day for several months, it seemed good simply to lay out two key quotations.

First from Wolfhart Dannenberg in first volume of his Systematic Theology:
“The thought of eternity that is not simply opposed to time but positively related to it, embracing it in its totality, offers a paradigmatic illustration and actualization of the true Infinite which is not just opposed to the finite but embraces the antithesis”
And, particularly on the question of how the Incarnation helps us interpret God's temporality (or not), Thomas Oden, who summarized the relation between time and eternity through the pattern of the Incarnation, was particularly helpful: 
“The decisive Christian analogy concerning time is that between the eternal indwelling in time and the incarnation. Brilliantly, the classical exegetes taught that the creation of time is analogous to the incarnation in this way: The Father inhabits time, just as the Son inhabits human flesh” (from the Living God, citing Hilary, Nemesius).
I draw then this provisional conclusion: The eternal God embraces temporality. God is not timeless or atemporal, but is also not defined by earthly time. Indeed God, in many senses, transcends time... which, I suppose means, that God doesn't stay some timeless Deity, up in the sky, but truly interacts with you and me. And that I take to be central to the Gospel.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

An Invitation to Lent

“You must submit to supreme suffering in order to discover the completion of joy.” - John Calvin
If you’re not familiar with Lent, it comes from the word “to lengthen”—in other words, during these weeks the days begin to lengthen with the coming light of spring. The period of Lent is
 40 days of fasting before the celebration of Easter. Traditionally, Christians have fasted—given up certain foods or other things— during Lent as a sign of repentance, faith, and preparation for Easter. Lent does not include Sundays because in the history of the Christian church, those are “feast" days, in which we celebrated the Resurrection, and not “fast” days. In total, there are 46 days during this season (not including Easter), but we fast for 40 of those.
As the community of Christians worldwide, we now enter into the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, particularly the call to repentance. 
“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
Joel 2:12-13
A few years ago, when I looked back over my life, I realized that I couldn’t go forward simply by pressing on faster—instead I needed “to turn around” and slow down. This insight from C. S. Lewis spoke to me,
"We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man."
Progress is the result of “turning around” around fast, as long as we realize that “turning around” is the root meaning of repentance and that in Lent, we fast (give up certain pleasures or necessities)
in order to slow down and get on the right track. 
Why it’s called Ash Wednesday? Because ashes are a sign that we are making a U turn, that we are repenting. As a sign of repentance, the Bible speaks of using ashes. Consider these two verses:
Joel 2:12-13 says, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” 
In Matthew 11:20-21, Jesus calls two towns in Galilee to repent in sackcloth and ashes: 
“Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.’”
So, Ash Wednesday—whether we literally use ashes or not— initiates a time of repenting or seeking to turn our life around in the places we are heading away from God. That way we we turn back to God, at the center of our life.

What do I need to repent from? God, search me and help me to find out.

Friday, February 05, 2016

In Memoriam, Earth, Wind & Fire

As I take in the death of Maurice White, founder of Earth, Wind, and Fire (EWF), I think of the music that plays just about daily on my iPhone (and thus throughout my house).

It was the music that Laura and I fell in love to 35 years ago. It’s the music that my parents Tom and Ruth—also now gone— grooved to. “Sun Goddess,” “Let’s Groove,” and “Shining Star” among many others provided the atmosphere for many a Cootsona party. It’s the music that helps me find the groove when I’ve lost it and offers me a vision of what it means to play as a band.

I love the way they brought African music, jazz and so many other influences to pop. As a drummer/percussionist, I was amazed that, the entire band embodied the rhythm. They lived the groove. Every instrument—whether bass, sax, drum kit, or keyboard contributed to what we call in the business a truly “righteous” rhythm. They were also positively positive. It’s hard to have a bad day when you listen to EWF and hear, “When you feel down and out, sing a song—it’ll make you dance.”

As White himself put it"We live in a negative society. Most people can't see beauty and love. I see our music as medicine."

Perhaps my favorite song is off a somewhat obscure recording on “Greatest Hits Live” where they play “Reasons." Ah so many great things… Verdine White (Maurice’s brother) playing flawless bass… Philip Bailey’s falceto, flawless and gossamer… the amazing sax solo by Scott Mayo in which—and this is my big point—Maurice and Philip are cheering him on the whole time. Ego gave way to teamwork.

EWF played as a band. They loved the groove. They decided that light always overcomes darkness. Though Maurice is gone, their music will keep playing in this house.

P.S. These are just a few notes in remembrance. I reserve the right to add more.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Two Problems with The Way We Think: Confirmation Bias and Statistical Outliers

In my recent post on “The Seekers Who Aren’t” (that is, that people outside church walls aren’t really seeking the church to find answers), I wrote, 
“As proof we [church leaders] offer isolated anecdotes of those who were searching and found our churches.” 
Here I offer two reasons that anecdotes don’t prove what they promise.

There are two problems with anecdotes as proof. The first is “confirmation bias,” which the thoughtful and bestselling psychologist and author Daniel Kahneman takes on in Thinking Fast and Slow. We tend to look for evidence to confirm what we want to be true. For example, we tend be afraid of natural disasters over health risks, Kahneman writes
“Strokes cause almost twice as many deaths as all accidents combined, but 80% of respondents judged accidental death to be more likely.”
Many people look for the first sign to confirm their fears and visual representations—as well as media reports—inflame our fear. How often do we read about death by strokes versus natural disasters on the NBC Nightly News or Facebook news?
More specifically, as Kahneman writes, 
“Tsunamis are very rare even in Japan, but the image is so vivid and compelling that tourists are bound to overestimate their probability” (333).

For this reason, we remember and retell stories that tell reinforce confirming, and therefore comforting, preconceptions.

Second problem is misunderstanding outliers. Here’s the issue: I tell you that smoking, drinking, and being obese are all factors that tend to decrease life span. And then someone responds, “Ya, right. My uncle smoked two packs a day, had six beers every night, and weighed 350 pounds—he lived to be 95.” Of course, it’s possible, but it’s not counterproof. We’re not talking about one person, but a population sample of millions. Smoking, drinking, and being obese are all factors that tend to decrease life span for people as a rule. On every statistical distribution, which can be mapped on a “Bell Curve,” there’s the percentage of people on the outside ends or “outliers.” And that's where your miraculously long-lived uncle fits.

Bottom line: We might tell an anecdote or two of “real seekers,” as an antidote to evidence points in an unpleasant direction. That, however, is not good proof. We want our conclusions to be true so we seek whatever supports our convictions (confirmation bias), but exceptional stories don’t disprove the rule (misunderstanding outliers). I leave this as a question, Do we telling ourselves stories to make us feel better when feeling bad might be what’s needed?